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San Diego approves long-delayed ban on polystyrene foam food trays, coolers, pool toys

A person pushes a cart laden with restaurant supplies, including boxes of foam bowls, through a warehouse
A customer gathers supplies to purchase, including a box of styrofoam bowls, at the Restaurant Depot in Barrio Logan on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The legislation, which takes effect in April, also makes straws and plastic utensils available only by request.

San Diego became the largest city in California to ban food trays, coolers and pool toys made of foam when the City Council approved long-delayed legislation in a 7-1 vote on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

The legislation, which takes effect April 1, also requires restaurants and food delivery services to stop giving out straws and plastic utensils unless customers request them.

Supporters of the ban say foam products poison marine life and damage the health of people who eat seafood, because foam is not biodegradable and continuously breaks into steadily smaller pieces.

Often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, the products — made of the chemical polystyrene — enter local waterways and easily get consumed by wildlife after they break down into much smaller pieces.

“Single-use plastic waste, specifically polystyrene, ends up in our creeks and canyons and reaches our beaches and the ocean and is physically present in the fish we eat,” said Councilmember Joe LaCava, chairman of the council’s Environment Committee.

San Diego’s ban covers foam egg cartons, coolers, ice chests, pool toys, dock floats and mooring buoys. Retail stores wouldn’t be able to sell those products, and residents wouldn’t be able to use them at city parks and beaches.

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

San Diego joins more than 130 other California cities with bans on polystyrene, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Imperial Beach. The council must approve the ban a second time next month.

While San Diego is the largest city in California to ban foam, Los Angeles is scheduled to follow suit next month. San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland already have bans.

San Diego’s ban, initially approved in 2019, has been delayed nearly four years by litigation filed by restaurants and foam container companies that sought a comprehensive analysis of the ban’s potential environmental effects.

The city delayed enforcement and conducted the analysis, which concluded 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.

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.

“Many businesses have already made the switch,” said LaCava, stressing that city officials would much prefer full compliance than levying fines. “The intent is not to be punitive, but to convert everybody.”

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, giving them until April 2024.

There are also hardship exemptions for businesses that either can’t find any reasonable alternative to polystyrene or have entered into 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 attempts to get businesses into compliance.

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who represents southeastern San Diego, praised that approach because many small businesses in her district don’t have the “cash flow of a Starbucks.”

Despite the exemptions and the city’s generally lenient approach, representatives of the foam container industry and local restaurant industry still lobbied unsuccessfully for changes on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Container companies asked the city to analyze a study showing polystyrene food containers prevent food poisoning because they control temperature better than other containers.

The restaurant industry asked city officials to delay the effective date to December. They also asked that “upon request” be changed to “upon offer” in the rules affecting straws and plastic utensils.

Councilmember Chris Cate, the council’s only Republican, cast the lone “no” vote. He did not give a reason and didn’t speak at all during the public hearing.

For details, go to sandiego.gov/environmental-services/recycling/pf-ban.


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