Griffin Aiken couldn’t sit still.
The 4-year-old wandered around the picnic tables at Downs Park picking up trash, bringing it back to make a pile next to his mother, Jennifer Aiken.
“I see it a lot when I’m walking on the street. I see a lot of Styrofoam cups or trays just floating around,” said Alex McCreery, 10. “I try to do my best to pick it up, because I don’t really like all this disgusting stuff around.”
In June, the Aiken, Papa and McCreery families took their children, ages 4-10, to a county council meeting to support Bill 49-18, which would have banned food service facilities in the county from using polystyrene products.
Polystyrene, more commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, is a single-use plastic that is commonly used in the food industry as cups, trays and takeout containers. Polystyrene is not easily recyclable. However, it is an inexpensive product, which is why it is so widely used.
“For me, the main thing is that we’re teaching our kids that they can make a difference,” said Kenneth Papa, whose son Niko, 10, spoke at the meeting. “It’s very important for them at this age to realize that they can sit in front of a panel of eight adults in suits and have corporate lobbyists come and speak against them dressed in their suits, and they can win a battle. They can make a difference. Their voice counts just as much as anyone else’s.”
At the June 18 county council meeting, the bill passed 4-3, but it was then vetoed by County Executive Steve Schuh. It went back to vote at the July 2 county council meeting but did not get the 5-2 vote it needed to override the veto.
“We’ve said in the past that all litter is bad litter, and this is a form of that litter,” said Bernie Marczyk, a government affairs officer for the Schuh administration. “In addition, we do believe that this is another tax that would be put on small businesses throughout the county who use this product. We believe we need to stop nickel-and-diming these businesses in the county.”
Supporting this bill is only a small part of what the three families do to protect the environment and advocate banning single-use plastics. The kids go on trash cleanups, write letters to restaurants and use stainless steel reusable straws when they go out to eat.
Owen McCreery, 8, even boycotted buying lunch at school to avoid using Styrofoam trays. “When I bought lunch on Fridays, I saw the Styrofoam trays, and I was like, ‘disgusting,’” Owen said. “Since I didn’t want it in my food, I stopped buying lunch.”
Kristin McCreery, Owen’s mom, and Jennifer Aiken are both co-chairs of Bodkin Elementary School’s environmental fair, which is how they learned that all the county schools use Styrofoam trays in the cafeterias.
“We have been looking for a suitable replacement, which would be a recyclable material of some sort,” said Jodi Risse, the supervisor of Food & Nutrition Services at AACPS.
The school system evaluated three potential substitutes for the upcoming school year, but it would have extended a $600,000 charge per year to the families, Risse said. A suitable substitute is a product that is available in the needed quantity at a reasonable cost and can be recycled somewhere accessible.
“The biggest concern for me is to pass on an added expense to families for a paper product that’s still going to go to a landfill instead of buying fruits and vegetables for the students,” Risse said.
Baltimore City, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have all passed legislation banning the use of polystyrene, or Styrofoam.
“We want [the county] to be a leader on this issue,” Jennifer said. “Baltimore City, Montgomery County, Prince George’s — this ban is in place there. It just makes sense that Anne Arundel County could be next.”