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Styrofoam Dishware Ban Considered In California

Paresh Dave |
April 21, 2011 | 3:51 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Restaurants, food trucks, cafeterias and all other food vendors across the state could banned from serving food in Styrofoam containers under a bill that cleared its first legislative committee earlier this month.

Polystyrene foam bowls, cups, plates and boxes are considered to be environmental nightmares because the one-time use material slowly degrades into little chunks. Proponents of the proposed ban argue too many of those chunks end up in waterways where they not only surfaces as litter but also are mistaken as food by marine animals.

Nearly 50 cities and counties in California already have banned handing out food packaged in polystyrene foam, which is commonly known either as EPS or by its brand-name Styrofoam. Some of those municipal bans only affect the city and its contractors. Local ordinances tougher than state laws would not be affected.

Though several companies that manufacture biodegradable products that the food vendors might have to turn are supporting the legislation, it falls short of dictating what should be used instead of Styrofoam. More demanding legislation failed to clear the Legislature in the recent years. Other than biodegradable products, there's always paper and plastic dishware.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal's (D-Long Beach) office, which is sponsoring the legislation, said support of the bill from a labor organization for the first time (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) along with L.A. County Board of Supervisors are signs of significant momentum toward passage.

“More cities are finding Styrofoam to be detriment,” said Meegen Murray, a Lowenthal aide.

Three powerful business organizations—the American Chemistry Council, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Grocers Association—are among the groups opposed because of the effects on their bottom-lines.

The groups argue the overall amount of litter wouldn't be significantly reduced if food shops turned to cheaper options like plastic. Styrofoam is also lighter and more adept at controlling food and drink temperatures than the other choices on the market.

It's unclear how a statewide ban would be enforced and what penalties vendors would face for noncompliance. Several cities have relied on consumer complaints for enforcement.

Staff and volunteers for San Francisco's environmental department have visited more than 4,000 of the city's 4,500 vendors to personally check for compliance with a ban on styrofoam containers. The process, which began in 2007, should wrap up this year.

Almost 3,100 of the locations with permits from the county health department to hand out prepared food were in compliance before being visited. Alex Dmitriew of the city's Zero Waste team, credited outreach efforts including several community meetings and warning letters for widespread compliance. Only a handful of businesses have needed more than three warnings to switchover to compostable or biodegradable products.

It's possible the state could leave enforcement of a ban up to county health inspectors—something San Francisco's inspectors balked at when Dmitriew tried to have them add reporting Styrofoam violations to their duties.

“There was no cost-effective way for them to communicate back to us,” Dmitriew said.  “We had the wherewithal to do this, so we made time for visiting all the restaurants.”

Last year, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors banned Styrofoam food containers from county-operated buildings. The Sheriffs Department instead considered a recycling program for styrofoam containers. Dart Container—one of the leading recyclers—said such a program would not be feasible for the department because of its many locations and the need for the Styrofoam to be washed. The department switched to paper products in January, according to spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

The state legislation excludes prisons and jails from its definition of food vendors, partially because alternative materials can be more easily crafted into makeshift weapons. Almost everything else from caterers to fast-food outlets is covered.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) is a co-sponsor of SB 568. If approved, the ban would go into effect in 2013.

With five Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed, the measure passed the Senate Environmental Quality committee in early April. It now awaits a vote by the full Democratically-controlled State Senate.

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