Solana Beach becomes first in county to ban polystyrene containers

Although it’s the second smallest city in San Diego County, Solana Beach is once again leading the region on sustainable practices. Having been the first city in the county to ban single-use plastic bags, Solana Beach has now become the first city in the county to ban disposable plastic food containers.

“Sometimes it is very important for government to get involved for the greater good,” Mayor Lesa Heebner said.

With a 4-1 vote on Oct. 14, Solana Beach joined 90 other California jurisdictions that have prohibited polystyrene, particularly the expanded form of the plastic commonly known as Styrofoam.

Environmentalists advocate against the plastic containers because they do not biodegrade. Products instead break up into smaller pieces that, in coastal cities such as Solana Beach, often pollute the beaches and end up in the ocean, where they can be swallowed by marine animals.

According to the city staff report, Californians Against Waste estimates that 377,579 tons of expanded polystyrene are produced in the state. Of that, 154,808 tons are used to make food-service packaging that ends up in landfills.

The Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce conducted a study showing that only 18 restaurants out of 63 used polystyrene containers.

A recent survey by the Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce showed that only 18 out of 63 restaurants contacted used polystyrene containers, said Assistant City Manager Dan King.

Polystyrene can technically be recycled, King explained, but it must be “completely clean and in near-pristine condition.”

Waste Management, the city’s residential waste hauler, does not recycle the products. EDCO, which handles commercial trash in Solana Beach, does so, but on a limited basis. The program primarily focuses on large, clean polystyrene packaging materials. Because of concerns about contamination of food containers, King said they are often not recycled through the program.

“In addition, research has shown that statewide, only 1 percent of all expanded polystyrene is actually recycled,” King said. “For those reasons, a polystyrene ban would be more effective for Solana Beach.”

If approved on a second reading at the Oct. 28 council meeting, the city’s ordinance would be effective in 30 days, with a six-month grace period for restaurants to use existing supplies or apply for a hardship exemption.

In addition to food containers, the ban also prohibits the use of polystyrene packing materials such as “peanuts” and “popcorn” by businesses in Solana Beach. Reusable foam ice chests are allowed.

Although dozens of cities across California already prohibit polystyrene, no other city in the county has passed such regulations. Earlier this month, a proposal to ban polystyrene containers in Encinitas was placed on indefinite hold because people in the business community voiced concerns that a ban would bring added expense and inconvenience customers.

For similar reasons, Councilwoman Ginger Marshall voted against the ordinance.

“There is going to be considerable hardship on some of these small businesses,” Marshall said. “I’m glad that we are going to offer an exemption. I hope that they’re not going to have to go through a forensic accountant to show a financial hardship by switching to an alternative product should this pass.”

Marshall also said that prohibiting polystyrene would not prevent people from creating litter with the alternatives to the plastic.

“I don’t really believe that banning Styrofoam is going to prevent the alternative from being thrown in the ocean,” she said. “People are going to throw Styrofoam in the ocean. They’re going to throw the alternative in the ocean.”

Two people from local restaurants and a representative of the California Restaurant Association spoke against the ordinance. The owners of nine Solana Beach restaurants also submitted letters to the city opposing the ban. These included Annie’s Cafe & Deli, Fidel’s Little Mexico, Masuo’s Restaurant, Parioli Italian Bistro, Roberto’s Mexican Food, Samurai Japanese Restaurant, Solana Beach Fish House, Station Sushi and Tony’s Jacal.

“The foam containers are the most affordable packaging product for our business,” said Cecilia Robledo, owner of Roberto’s Mexican Food on North Coast Highway. “I believe the foam is recyclable. We need to emphasize more on recycling.”

Saying that the plastic containers are the most affordable product on the market, Robledo said it costs $8.50 for 100 polystyrene containers at Smart & Final, where the closest alternative product costs $14.99 for 50 containers.

“There’s only so much we can increase our prices,” Robledo said. “As it is, we are struggling with higher food costs and higher labor.”

No restaurant owners spoke in favor of the ban, but it was supported by some residents, several representatives of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, and most of the council members.

“I want to applaud you on taking the lead on this important topic,” said resident Kristin Brinner, a member of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization that works to protect and preserve the world’s oceans, waves and beaches. “I’m proud tonight to be a Solana Beach resident.”

“This is for the greater good and the long-term health of all of us,” added resident Gerri Retman-Opper.

Some speakers also said low-cost alternatives are available.

“It’s a one-cent increase per container,” said Michael Tonti of the Surfrider Foundation. “That one cent should be passed on to the consumer. The consumer will not notice that.”

Councilman Peter Zahn originally proposed the idea to the council, which directed staff on Sept. 9 to draft an ordinance that would prohibit the plastic.

“The health and environment benefits, in my view, outweigh the really, temporary disposable nature of the polystyrene container,” Zahn said.