Business

SLO County moves to ban Styrofoam. Local restaurants warn it will cost customers

Terry Mullikin, left, and Jake Bitter with their leftover lunches packed into Styrofoam containers at Margie's Diner in San Luis Obispo, where owner Marjorie Johnson was concerned about a 2015 ordinance that banned the materials in city limits.
Terry Mullikin, left, and Jake Bitter with their leftover lunches packed into Styrofoam containers at Margie's Diner in San Luis Obispo, where owner Marjorie Johnson was concerned about a 2015 ordinance that banned the materials in city limits. Joe Johnston

San Luis Obispo County is moving ahead with a plan to ban Styrofoam, despite opposition from several North County restaurant operators who say alternative products either won't work or are too expensive and would force them to raise prices.

The Integrated Waste Management Authority Board on Wednesday voted 11-2 to direct staff to draft an ordinance banning the sale and use of expanded polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam. An ordinance will return to the board in September.

The 13-person board includes all five county supervisors, one representative of each of the seven cities and a representative of community services districts.

North County Supervisors Debbie Arnold and John Peschong voted against moving forward with a ban.

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Arnold said she didn't have enough time to discuss the issue with constituents, but has already heard concerns about the ability to use alternative materials for to-go items like soup and ice cream.

"I feel like we need more discussion and public input," Arnold said. "Some restaurants are clearly upset."

Peschong said he is more interested in a voluntary curbside recycling program like San Diego's, which would allow people to properly dispose of materials they receive in packages — a source of Styrofoam that a countywide ban wouldn't address.

"It's a burden on the small restaurants," he said. "The cost is between $5,000 and $20,000 to be able to purchase non-Styrofoam food handling devices. ... It's not bankrupting anybody, but if you have a small Mexican restaurant in Paso Robles, $10,000 is a lot of money."

Dozens of letters both for and against a ban were sent to the board before their meeting; those against were from small business owners.

"Styrofoam containers and cups are affordable and suitable for our foods and drinks. It keeps our costs down so we don't have to raise our prices to our customers and it helps us made a profit. It is also recyclable and the higher end products are very expensive and if we're forced to buy those products we will have to increase our costs and raise our prices," said a letter signed by representatives of Blue Moon Grill, Vic's Cafe and Deli That Delivers in Paso Robles.

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Similar messages were sent by Jalapeno City, Cowgirl Cafe, Bronco Burgers, Tortilla Town and J's Burgers in Paso Robles and by Bravo Pizza, Fattes Pizza and Taqueria Don Jose in Atascadero.

Board members did discuss allowing some business to postpone switching to different materials if it is too much of a financial burden.

Five of the seven cities in San Luis Obispo County have already adopted Styrofoam bans in an effort to reduce the flow of broken foam into the ocean and landfills.

Conservation organizations sent letters in support of the countywide ban to help protect marine wildlife from small foam particles that breakdown and look like food. Those include Morro Coast Audobon Society and the San Luis Obispo chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

A leader with SLO Foam Free was overjoyed with the board's decision.

"We're elated that after five years of working on this, we had an overwhelming vote in favor of the ordinance. The majority of the supervisors and the board all felt that we need to be progressive in looking toward the future and our young generation that is inheriting our trash. We need to do something for this part of this problem that we can stop," said activist Janine Rands.

A draft ordinance will likely not be available until September. But general comments about the potential ordinance can be received by board members and waste management staff.

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