SLO needs to explore Styrofoam container ban

Eliminating plastic receptacles could reduce ocean pollution

letters@thetribunenews.comMarch 9, 2014 

The city of San Luis Obispo has some serious issues on its plate, first among them the order to repeal binding arbitration. There also are development proposals, homelessness, the drought, ubiquitous town-gown controversies and many more.

On top of all that, agroup of residents recently asked the council to consider banning food containers made of polystyrene foam, better known as Styrofoam.

We’re not ready to sign off on a ban — we’d need to hear more about the specific proposal and the pros and cons for our area first — but we agree that this is an issue the city should consider at its first opportunity.

The city has been a leader in so many environmental, social and public health issues. Now, it’s time to put plastic litter from foam containers on the radar.

More than 70 California cities and counties already have banned or restricted use of Styrofoam containers, the largest being the city of San Jose.

Some reasons given in other jurisdictions:

• Foam containers are rarely recycled and wind up taking up space in our landfills.

• They are a leading culprit in plastic pollution of our ocean and other waterways.

• The plastic breaks down into small particles, so light that they are easily dispersed by the wind. Plastic pellets can be mistaken for food by marine life, with toxic results.

• There are concerns that human health can be affected by the styrene in foam containers.

As pointed out by the San Jose Mercury News, McDonald’s stopped using plastic foam containers for food in 1989, after the Environmental Protection Agency found styrene in all samples of human fat tissue analyzed in 1986. The fast-food giant continued to use foam coffee cups, but recently announced it would phase those out and replace them with double-walled cardboard cups.

• It’s especially hazardous when burned, because it releases chemicals that can harm health and the environment.

On the pro-foam side, advocates point out that Styrofoam containers are much more efficient when it comes to keeping food and drink warm. They also say they’re much less expensive than some of the alternative products.

That’s a concern; no one wants to see small businesses suffer economically due to a new regulatory requirement. Consider, too, the many nonprofit groups that put on benefit barbecues and almost invariably use the compartmentalized “clamshell” containers.

However, ordinances can be drafted in ways that minimize such impacts. San Jose’s ban, for example, grants an exemption for nonprofits . It also exempts businesses that earn less than $300,000 per year, if they can show that they can’t find a replacement product as cheap as foam containers.

We suspect that as more and more cities go “foam free,” alternatives will become more plentiful and costs will drop.

Nonetheless, we also suspect that there will be considerable resistance to efforts to ban foam in local communities. If you doubt that, think back to the plastic bag ban.

We believe, however, that this would be arelatively painless way to cut down on unsightly litter on our roads, parks, beaches and other public places; to reduce the flow of plastic trash to our oceans, lakes and streams; to eliminate health concerns linked to foam food containers; and to further reduce the amount of garbage buried in landfills.

Again, we urge the San Luis Obispo City Council to take the local lead by considering the pros and cons of a full or partial ban on foam food containers.

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