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Long-delayed San Diego polystyrene foam ban could take effect in April

 Polystyrene foam products like these would be banned under a plan in San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Restaurants would have to stop using foam food containers and retailers wouldn’t be allowed to sell foam pool toys or coolers.

Big changes may be coming in the spring for many San Diego restaurants and retail stores as city officials say they plan to follow through on a long-delayed ban on polystyrene foam food containers, coolers, pool toys and similar products.

City officials said the ban, which has been delayed nearly four years by litigation filed by restaurants and foam container companies, will take effect April 1 if the City Council approves it during a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Prospects for approval got a boost Oct. 27 when the council’s Environment Committee voted 4-0 in favor of the ban, with Councilman Joe LaCava, the committee chairman, saying “San Diego is ready to say goodbye to polystyrene and single-use plastics.”

The committee’s approval “gets us one step closer to keeping these harmful materials out of our waste stream, beaches and waters,” LaCava, whose District 1 includes Carmel Valley, said in a statement.

The city’s move was praised by several environmental groups, who said foam products poison marine life and damage the health of people who eat seafood.

Such foam, often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, is not biodegradable and continuously breaks into steadily smaller pieces, which allows it to enter local waterways and easily get consumed by wildlife.

The legislation heads off what would be a costly and contentious ballot measure and pushes California ahead of the world in the fight against plastic waste.

The San Diego law also would make it illegal for restaurants and delivery services to distribute plastic utensils or straws unless customers request them.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert said she would support San Diego eventually banning plastic straws entirely.

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell said she would like to remove an exemption for foam bodyboards, contending that foam from the boards frequently ends up in the ocean despite protective coating designed to prevent that.

But neither of those suggestions is part of the legislation the council will consider in November.

The proposed city law would apply to egg cartons, coolers, ice chests, pool toys, dock floats and mooring buoys. Residents wouldn’t be able to use those products, and retail stores wouldn’t be able to sell them.

San Diego would join more than 130 other California cities with bans on polystyrene, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Imperial Beach.

San Diego also would become the largest city in California to ban foam. Los Angeles city officials say they plan to enact a similar ban this year. San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland already have bans.

Nearly all national and regional restaurant chains long ago stopped using polystyrene in response to lobbying from environmental groups and backlash from customers concerned that foam isn’t biodegradable.

But many taco shops, pizza parlors, convenience stores and other small businesses continue to use foam products to save money.

To soften the impact on those businesses, San Diego’s proposed ban includes delays and hardship exemptions.

Businesses with annual incomes of less than $500,000 would not need to comply with the ban for the first year after it takes effect.

There also are hardship exemptions for businesses that either can’t find a reasonable alternative to polystyrene or have entered long-term contracts for non-compliant products before the new city law takes effect.

City officials said they will take an education-first approach with businesses, with enforcement and fines coming only after warnings and other attempts to get businesses to comply.

San Diego is reviving the planned foam ban, which was initially adopted in January 2019, after litigation caused city officials to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the ban’s potential environmental effects.

City finalizes analysis showing environmental benefits of ban outweigh any negative impacts

The analysis concluded that the environmental benefits of banning the foam far outweigh a slight increase in truck pollution caused by the switch from foam to heavier paper products.

The lawsuit, filed by the California Restaurant Association and one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of foam takeout containers, suggested a study was needed to determine whether the environmental damage that could be caused by a switch to paper might outweigh the environmental benefits of the switch.

San Diego’s ban would complement new state legislation regarding foam and straws, city officials said.

SB 54 will restrict distribution of polystyrene foam in the state starting in 2025 if the recycling rate of the material doesn’t exceed 25 percent by then. AB 1276 restricts the distribution of single-use utensils and condiment packets.

For details on the city’s ban, go to sandiego.gov/environmental-services/recycling/pf-ban.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.


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