Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

City Council Approves Ban On Polystyrene Foam

Foam soup containers are stacked in a New York restaurant, Feb. 14, 2013.
Associated Press
Foam soup containers are stacked in a New York restaurant, Feb. 14, 2013.
City Council To Consider Hotly Contested Ban On Polystyrene Foam
City Council To Consider Hotly Contested Ban On Polystyrene Foam GUEST: Chris Ward, councilman, city of San Diego

The Styrofoam egg carton in your refrigerator or the takeout lunch container your restaurant uses could soon be banned. The San Diego City Council today will consider an ordinance to stop the use of polystyrene packaging. If approved San Diego would become the fourth city in the county and the largest city in the state to ban polystyrene. Joining me is San Diego City Council member Chris Ward and council member Ward welcome. Thank you good to be here. You've been one of the major proponents of this ban. Why do you think we should get rid of this material. Thank you. So we introduced the ordinance earlier this year because we have a pretty robust climate action plan and part and parcel to that as our zero waste goals. We want to make sure that we are reducing all harmful Styrofoam products and other kinds of plastics out of our waste stream to be able to meet that goal by 2040. And we know you mentioned four in the county and we would be the largest city but there's over 100 cities up and down the state that have instituted a similar ordinance and we can join that list and I think really try to move the product line off of the shelves and certainly out of our waterways and out of our ocean. Environmentalists have been trying to remove this product from our allies for a long time. What do they say. What is the problem with styrofoam so styrofoam does not biodegrade it photo degrades it just gets into smaller and smaller particles and pieces and we know this from our own beach cleanups and we see the remnants that are mixed into the sand. We know what's out in the ocean because about one quarter of the Marine Life that the fish that we Polin for human consumption test positive for plastics. So it's unacceptable from a public health standpoint. We know we see it with our own two eyes and we know that product lines have shifted over time. There's plenty of alternative products that are available to do the same thing that you want a Styrofoam container to do. What items are included in the ban are under consideration. So for example the Styrofoam containers that you take out from the taco shop egg cartons as you mention anything that is not encapsulated that is just sort of you know free brittle styrofoam expanded polystyrene products only within the city of San Diego. So questions have come up. Is this going to affect packaging products. Can I. What about my Amazon shipment. No because we can only control what is in the jurisdiction of the city of San Diego. So everything that has a point or sale of distribution within the city of San Diego would be subject to this ordinance plastic straws would also be regulated how would that work. Yes so when we started talking about this topic there's been a lot of push actually from the business community to go straw free and when we heard from other kinds of organizations and stakeholder groups I didn't think that we were right ready to go completely straw free or completely you know alternative products to say plastic forks because that product line is not really developed quite yet but one thing this ordinance does do is it from going forward will require businesses restaurants to only offer these products upon request. So a lot of people you just lay it on the table but it ends up right in the trash. People actually don't need the volume that we're actually providing for the restaurants in bulk. We can reduce our waste streams if we just have a by request only provision. Now last summer the city council decided not to ban polystyrene packaging but instead allow it to be recycled. Why can't that continue. The great question. So I was on the environment committee last year when we made that decision. We have found that while you can put poly styrofoam into your bloomin containers right now it's actually not able to get recycled. And that's for a few reasons. One we found that we just don't have the recycling capacity locally to handle that volume so we end up trucking a lot of it out to Riverside County or Imperial County. They don't have the facilities up and running to be able to handle that volume. So a lot of it ended up in the landfill. So what are we doing now you complicate that with some of the issues that we have around recycling goods and China and there one Saward policy and that's certainly out of our control so you know that was a valiant effort. But why don't we just go back to the source of that issue why don't we just go ahead and start to transition our product lines and just take it out of a waste stream altogether. And I want to reference I want to go into what you referenced about China there recently the city found out it wouldn't be making any money any more on its recycling program because China has scaled way back on the amount of material it will accept. How has that change playing into the decision to ban polystyrene that relates to this but it certainly has a larger conversation that we need to have as a city knowing that the world might be changing going forward. We know that there is a lot of opportunity I think I've been asking some of my counterparts in Mexico. We met with them last month at my environmental excuse me my economic development committee about other opportunities to expand recycling opportunities south of the border and whether there's a partnership there. So we are already constrained by the capacity of recycling facilities here in our county. We need to look more regionally for other opportunities to really try to divert and reduce that we stream. Now the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and Restaurant Association are against the ban mainly because of the costs involved in switching to more environmentally friendly products. Here's Chris Duggan with the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. Anywhere from 54 per cent to 145 per cent increase to a mom and pop restaurant to a restaurant that uses this product. So the first one there is a significant if not enormous cost to a small family owned restaurant that's using this product. Is there anything in the ordinance to alleviate the Restaurant Association concerns over the added costs to businesses. Absolutely I'll say first there's been a variety of statistics and numbers that have been presented to me. One actually said that over time the cost differential between some comparable products is really just one to seven cents per unit. So it's really negligible and we haven't really seen prices jump and Ensign Nita's or some of the other local cities 57 percent. So let's be honest about that. We do have a waiver built into this ordinance so if a small business feels like there's going to be a hardship case in point if you had 5000 containers in the back store room I don't want those to just be thrown out I want you to exhaust your supply and work with you with our environmental services department to help transition into alternative product lines give you options show you other kinds of cost comparable options that are available to you. So all of that is built into the ordinance. We have a pretty robust and permissive waiver opportunities so if they can show hardship they can apply for that waiver the ordinance would not be subject to them. Okay so there is a whole opportunity for restaurants to apply for waivers. But how will the ban if it's approved actually be enforced. Would there be fines so there would be gradually escalating fines structure. The first would start with a warning. The second and third I think are just about two three five hundred dollars per violation and it would be based on report. So we're not going to have the police out there trying to look at the taco shops and enforce those. It really is coming into information for the city to take in and decide whether or not they want to send somebody out there to verify a violation and issue a civil penalty. And if approved when would it take effect. If approved it would take effect just take a couple of months I think we're aiming for about January 1st but depending on the final language in the ordinance the businesses. There will be some time for it to ramp up but these are the final timelines and numbers that we will hash out today. I've been speaking with the San Diego City Council member Chris Ward and thank you so much for your time. Thank you Maureen. Some local restaurants are still opposed to the proposed ban. The California Restaurant Association is holding a news conference at city hall this afternoon. Urged the City Council not to enact the polystyrene ban. We'll have an update in our newscast later today.

UPDATE: 5:33 P.M., October 15, 2018

Despite stiff opposition from restaurant owners, a divided San Diego City Council Monday tentatively approved a ban on the use and distribution of polystyrene foam products, such as egg cartons and food service containers.

The ban, proposed by City Councilman Chris Ward and approved on a 5-3 vote, would also prohibit the use and sale of items such as coolers, ice chests, pool or beach toys, mooring buoys and navigation markers made partially or completely of polystyrene foam, commonly called Styrofoam. As part of the ban, the city's Environmental Services Department would provide a list of safe, affordable alternatives to polystyrene products.


The ordinance still needs to come back to the council for a final vote.

City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez proposed a subsequently approved amendment to the ban that will provide a 12-month waiver for small businesses that bring in less than $500,000 annually.

"Banning Styrofoam is the right thing to do for the environment but we also have to give our small businesses a chance to adapt to the change," Gomez said. "... The waiver protects our small businesses as they plan the transition to more environmentally friendly products."

The City Council's Rules Committee approved the proposal by a 3-2 vote in July, sending it to the full council for Monday's debate.

Polystyrene products don't degrade the way more natural products do, taking hundreds of years to break down into smaller particles called microplastics. Marine and terrestrial fauna can and do mistake polystyrene for food.


"The negative impacts of Styrofoam are permanent and threaten the health of San Diegans, wildlife, and industries critical to our region," Ward said. "The time has come for us to listen to community groups, nonprofits and businesses that have been advocating for this change for years, and move away from Styrofoam and plastics in San Diego."

RELATED: Council Committee Approves Proposal To Ban Styrofoam And Related Products

Opponents of the ban claimed it will have a disproportionately negative effect on local restaurants that may not be able to afford more expensive alternatives to polystyrene containers the way larger chain eateries can. Opposition speakers at the council meeting expressed support for education programs for residents to prevent littering rather than an outright ban. A study by the California Restaurant Association, San Diego Chapter, found that the ban could force small food-service businesses to spend up to 145 percent more for polystyrene alternatives like compostable paper.

"We're opposed to the ban because polystyrene is a recyclable product," said Chris Duggan, director of local government affairs for the association's San Diego chapter.

Duggan compared polystyrene's potential for reuse to that of an empty pizza box or a used paper plate and noted that polystyrene can be and is recycled into things like crown molding.

Restaurant owners in City Council District 4, represented by Myrtle Cole, pushed back on the proposal Friday when they delivered more than 50 letters opposing the ban to Cole's district office. Restaurant owners in District 4 claimed Cole has not met with them despite multiple requests to voice their concerns.

One hour before Monday's council meeting, Ward and Councilwoman Barbara Bry held a news conference urging the council to support the ban. Representatives from supporting organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, the 5 Gyres Institute, Business for Good and North Park Main Street joined Ward and Bry, who both voted the proposal out of committee.

Meanwhile, a group of local restaurant owners and representatives from the California Restaurant Association held a news conference opposing the ban. After the vote, the association expressed concern about the council's effort to pass the ban prior to the November election.

"We are disappointed and unfortunately not surprised by the vote today," Duggan said in a statement. "With three weeks until the election, political expediency won over an equitable policy and a sustainable long-term innovative solution. We are very concerned by the rush to pass a sweeping policy without data, without an economic analysis, without an (environmental impact report), and most importantly, without addressing the realities the mandated costs will have on small mom-and-pop restaurants already struggling to make ends meet."

City Council members Ward, Bry, Gomez, Lorie Zapf and Myrtle Cole voted in favor of the ban, while Mark Kersey, Chris Cate and Scott Sherman voted against it. City Councilman David Alvarez was absent.

"I'm very leery when the word ban gets thrown around," Sherman said. "I heard a lot of people talk about the litter that's caused by single-use plastics and by Styrofoam. The product does not cause the litter, people cause the litter. I've done tons of beach cleanups where we see all the Styrofoam and the plastics and the tennis balls and all those different types of things; not one of those got there by itself."

While a 6-3 majority would make the ban immune to Mayor Kevin Faulconer's veto power, but the 5-3 vote with Alvarez absent makes the future murkier. If Alvarez is present for the second vote on the ordinance, it will likely achieve the veto-proof majority.

Faulconer has not taken a position on the ban.