A grassroots movement started more than a year ago has resulted in San Luis Obispo becoming the first city in San Luis Obispo County to ban Styrofoam.
To the delight of members of SLO Foam Free, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban the use of expanded polystyrene food and drink containers and require food vendors to use eco-friendly alternatives.
The new rules, which will come back for final approval at an upcoming meeting, also prohibit the retail sale of Styrofoam products not covered with a more durable material. Products that would be exempt could include coolers encased in hard plastic, for example.
Though the council received numerous written comments from business owners opposed to the ban, only one restaurant owner spoke Tuesday.
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"My concern is ... what is going to be next?" said Noe Nino, who owns Chilie Peppers off Foothill Boulevard. "As you know, we run our businesses on very low margins of savings ... so we have to be really cost conscientious."
After the meeting, Nino said he's not against the ban but was concerned about maintaining the quality of food for customers who come for Mexican take-out.
The other 10 speakers at the meeting supported the ban.
Brad Snook, chair of Surfrider Foundation of San Luis Obispo County, said Styrofoam is difficult to deal with during beach cleanups.
"The birds eat it, they scatter it," he said. "I would like to know how many restaurant owners who have polystyrene can gauge the amount of people who don't visit their restaurants because they have polystyrene containers."
Resident Laura Tremblay said she conducted her own survey of restaurants and coffee shops along Higuera Street downtown and found that about 90 percent had already switched away from Styrofoam.
"I seriously doubt that those restaurants when they went away from polystyrene decided to take a real hit in their profit," she said. "I think they logically did what most businesses do — they passed the cost on to the consumer."
More than 80 cities in California have similar regulations. The San Luis Obispo council decided to pursue an ordinance after SLO Foam Free, a coalition of groups and individuals in the city, urged the council in March 2014 to pass a ban.
City officials say expanded polystyrene, which isn't biodegradable, can easily break into small pieces that are difficult or impossible to remove. The ordinance would also meet an objective in the city's Climate Action Plan, which calls for increasing the use of recycled food containers.
The new rules will take effect six months after final adoption, with warnings issued for the first six months. Business owners would have to use disposable food and drink containers that are recyclable, biodegradable or compostable.
The ordinance contains exemptions for businesses where an alternative to expanded polystyrene is unavailable or is unaffordable. The council decided, however, to only allow a business to obtain an exemption for one year.
"The hardships should not be underestimated," said Councilman Dan Carpenter, who said he wished the ordinance applied countywide. "I think in time each business will adapt. I think it's more about emphasizing less waste and more reusable products."
A business owner would have to provide documentation showing that an alternative to an expanded polystyrene product costs at least 15 percent more than their current product, said Greg Hermann, the city's special project manager.
Hermann showed the council photos of Styrofoam cups, containers and packing peanuts that he spotted in San Luis Creek last week. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the city pulled 24 tons of trash from the creek last year, including Styrofoam.
The ordinance also exempts food packaged outside the city, meat and fish trays, construction materials, reused packing materials and items related to health and safety.