Rethinking Styrofoam

Posted: September 21st, 2018 | News, Top Story | No Comments

Sara Butler | Editor

Ban may soon take effect

If everything goes to plan, Styrofoam may no longer be seen on San Diego streets in 2019.

District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward’s proposal would ban the use, sale, production and distribution of foodware products made of polystyrene foam, more commonly known as Styrofoam, in the city of San Diego. It would also place restrictions on single-use plastics.

These products include — but are not limited to — cups, bowls, plates, coolers, ice chests, meat and fish trays, and egg cartons. They would not be allowed to be distributed at restaurants or sold at grocery stores, and customers would be prohibited from bringing them to public spaces such as parks, beaches and canyons.

Representatives of Councilmember Ward’s office are currently making their way around the planning group circuit to provide an update on this proposal, receive input from the Uptown community, and request letters of support.

So far, Brian Elliot presented at the Uptown Planners meeting on Sept. 4; Tyler Renner spoke at the Sept. 18 North Park Planning Committee (NPPC) meeting. Other representatives attended the Greater Golden Hill Community and Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group meetings, among others.

These presentations addressed a question on many minds: Why the ban?

Since polystyrene foam is not biodegradable, the material negatively impacts our landfills, oceans and rivers, wildlife, and overall community health. Instead, the foam photodegrades — meaning it breaks down into smaller pieces that resemble food that marine life can accidentally consume, unknowing of the consequence.

“Styrofoam will last way longer than any of us are alive, which is bad for the environment, which is bad for recycling, which is bad for our goals of reaching our Climate Action Plan,” Renner said, adding that the Climate Action Plan had an ambitious goal of having zero waste for the city of San Diego by 2040.

“If you look around the state, 116 either cities or counties in the state already have a ban on Styrofoam — places like San Francisco, San Jose are the two larger ones,” Elliot said. “San Diego would be the largest [city] in the state to have such a ban. We could really see this kind of action go statewide, but we really need to show that San Diego is a leader on this.”

The proposal came from Surfrider Foundation, who put forth a framework of the current version that Ward’s ban adopted and altered. Other proposals put forth by other jurisdictions that have put similar bans in place were also considered. Environmental and business partners such as Business for Good, Wildcoast/Costasalvaje, Sierra Club, 5 Gyres, San Diego Coastkeeper, Climate Action campaign and Greenpeace have vocalized their approval.

According to a fact sheet from the office of Councilmember Chris Ward, “violators will be issued a warning for an initial offense. Subsequent violations may result in a fine not to exceed: $200 for first violation; $350 for a second violation in the same 12-month period; and $500 for each subsequent violation in the same 12-month period.”

One North Park resident inquired who would be notifying the city about businesses who violate the ban. Renner replied that it would be complaint-driven by the public, as city employees would not be sent out to every restaurant to make sure they are complying.

NPPC board members Steve Doster, Chelsi Sparti and Randy Wilde stated their support of the proposal but voiced opposition to the fee-based approach, suggesting a focus on education and outreach instead.

“If I go to my local small business across the street I don’t necessarily want to set them up to get a big fine,” Wilde said, suggesting flexibility for the fines for these establishments to still encourage customers to report.

Renner said that these fees are intended to nudge businesses to change behavior over time, rather than burden or punish them. They have not decided on what education or outreach initiatives but assured these will be put in place.

Uptown Planners board member Jennifer Pesqueira owns El Indio Mexican Restaurant, which is turning 78 years old this year. She voiced her concern about how the ban would affect small businesses like hers.

“It’ll be a financial hardship for everybody that has businesses like mine,” Pesqueira said. “I’m not a full-service restaurant like Mister A’s with plates and silverware and dishwashers — I’m kind of in the middle.

“I don’t want to pack on the charge that I’m paying extra because there is a different type of container,” she continued, adding that alternative packaging — such as paper — wouldn’t work for her type of food.

Small businesses facing financial hardship — who earn an annual profit of $500,000 or less — may be exempt via a waiver, which would not have a limit as long as the financial hardship continues. The exception also applies to establishments with a current contract with a provider that gives them polystyrene foam products, though that waiver would be revisited after one year.

Though Leo Wilson — Uptown Planners board chair and Bankers Hill resident — supported the ban due to environmental problems seen firsthand in his neighborhood, he also shared Pesqueria’s concerns on the ban’s impact on small Uptown businesses.

“With Jennifer’s [Pesqueria] situation, when you [implement] something like this, small business owners are challenged enough,” Wilson said. “So in this ban … do a distinction between large, chain businesses and small, mom-and-pop [shops]. Certainly, give them a leeway of time because costs are going to be [high].

“The big guys can handle this — they probably adapted already, but the small ones we don’t want to lose can’t [handle the cost of the ban]” he continued.

Elliot said that the city is, and will continue, to work with businesses of all sizes to help them with the transition. They are also in communication with the California Restaurant Association.

“Part of this ordinance would require the director of Environmental Services in the city of San Diego to maintain a list of alternative products for a business to use. So that would include things like paper, cardboard, bamboo – there’s a variety of different biodegradable substances that can be used to replace the Styrofoam,” Renner said, adding this list would be updated as science and technology changes.

Though not entirely banned, single-use plastic utensils and straws will also face restrictions and are not to be distributed. Elliot added that in addition to Styrofoam, these products in particular are found most often in city-wide beach cleanups. However, businesses can provide them to customers by request.

“I’d like to say thank you for not banning straws, because there are times when you need a straw for young children … like for a 3-year-old child,” an attendee said at the Uptown Planners meeting. Elliot agreed, and added that this also applies to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and hospital use.

However, it turns out not all Styrofoam will be banned. In response to a question from University Heights resident Melissa, Elliot clarified that the ordinance does not include packaging materials.

“The city currently recycles Styrofoam — it’s limited though. For the food ware, which is often stained with various burrito juices or whatnot,” Elliot said. “That’s not going to go all the way through the process and be recycled; however, for packaging materials and what often times is shipped into San Diego, can be recycled — it should be.”

San Diego City Council Rules Committee approved the proposal by a 3-2 vote on July 11. Currently, it is waiting for additional vote from City Council slated for Oct. 15. If passed, the ordinance would take effect starting Jan. 1, 2019. San Diego Uptown News will provide an update after the vote.

—Reach Sara Butler at

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