Polystyrene [styrofoam] food and beverage containers may become the second ocean-polluting, plastic-based item to be prohibited for public use.
That’s if San Diego City Council members Barbara Bry of District 1, representing La Jolla, and Chris Ward representing mid-City in District 3, get their way in co-sponsoring new legislation.
“What we have now is a draft ordinance,” said Bry, noting the draft contains exceptions for “small businesses for customers requesting plastic utensils.”
The impetus for taking action against styrofoam, said Bry, “comes from the realization that this is a major problem.”
She added various environmental organizations like Surfrider, San Diego Coastkeeper and the Sierra Club, support banning styrofoam.
Concurrently, there is a similar measure at the state level proposed by Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica) for the second consecutive year, now stalled, that would prohibit California restaurants from distributing take-out orders in disposable polystyrene food service containers starting in 2020.
Polystyrene was discovered in 1839 by a Berlin pharmacist who distilled the material from combinations involving Sweetgum tree resin. Polystyrene first began being manufactured in 1931. In 1941, Dow Chemical invented the styrofoam process producing the product’s trademark foam shape. In 1960, Dart Container, the largest manufacturer of foam cups, produced their first styrofoam shipment.
Dr. Jenni Brandon, currently the Price Postdoctoral Fellow at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, said styrofoam is a threat because “it’s almost impossible to recycle. Because of the way it’s made, it breaks down into increasingly tinier pieces, and styrofoam floats because it’s super light. That’s why you find it very far from land out in the ocean.”
Brandon said styrofoam has other harmful qualities, noting it virtually cannot be biodegraded.
“Ninety-nine percent of the styrofoam ever made is still out there somewhere,” she said, adding it affects larger marine animals, working its way down and into the food chain as it gradually breaks up into ever-smaller pieces consumed by increasingly smaller creatures, ultimately winding up in human diets.
Brandon added styrofoam, being porous, “acts like a sponge soaking up pollutants, so animals that eat it not only get the plastic but other harmful chemicals as well.”
So how to restaurant owners, represented collectively, feel about the potential ban?
“San Diego has been a leader in sustainability by expanding its curbside program which has resulted in reducing waste in landfills," said Chris Duggan of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. "In fact, early results have indicated that more material such as plastics and expanded polystyrene are being recycled. Recycled expanded polystyrene has domestic markets and has not been as impacted by China’s National Sword."
"The challenge for every Material Recovery Facility (MRF) is mixed paper bales currently have no value in the market. A proposed ban for a product that is less than one percent of the waste stream and has a domestic market does not make sense. We need solutions for our mixed paper crisis.”
Bry said there are numerous other affordable alternatives to styrofoam that can take its place in packaging.
“These include recyclable paper and biodegradable plastic containers,” she said.
Concluded Bry about chemicals found in styrofoam, “It’s a known carcinogen and pollutant.” She pointed out that “116 jurisdictions in California have already prohibited them [styrofoam containers],” including Solana and Imperial beaches in San Diego.