SOLANA BEACH — Known as a leader in environmental stewardship, Solana Beach is at it again, on track to become the first city in the county to ban polystyrene.
With a 4-1 vote at the Sept. 9 meeting, council members directed staff to draft an ordinance that will prohibit such products, the most common of which are packing “peanuts” and “clamshell” containers for take-out food.
About 70 cities and three counties in California have adopted bans on polystyrene, a plastic product that doesn’t biodegrade or dissolve into organic matter. Instead it breaks up into smaller pieces that, in coastal cities such as Solana Beach, often end up in the ocean and are eaten by marine animals.
According to the staff report, Californians Against Waste estimates that 377,580 tons of expanded polystyrene are produced in the state. Of that 154,800 tons are used to make food-service packaging that ends up in landfills.
Waste Management, the city’s residential waste hauler, doesn’t recycle the products. EDCO, which handles commercial trash in Solana Beach, does so but on a limited basis.
Councilman Peter Zahn said he visited the Escondido plant and watched the clamshell containers go into the regular bin.
“They’re not being handled in any kind of recycling way,” he said, primarily because they are not washed before being thrown in recycling containers.
“It’s not a very active program,” City Manager Greg Wade said.
Zahn, who asked that the topic be added to the council agenda for discussion, recommended using the Santa Monica ordinance as a guideline.
He said food providers should be prohibited from dispensing prepared food in expanded polystyrene containers as well as nonrecyclable plastic ones.
The ban would also apply to all city facilities, city-managed concessions and city-sponsored and permitted events.
He recommended requiring businesses to use replacement products made from compostable materials or something that is recyclable.
In giving direction to staff, council members had the option of also requiring food vendors to label their packaging materials, a suggestion Zahn said “goes above and beyond.”
“I don’t necessarily see the need for that,” he said.
He also didn’t support asking businesses to submit annual certification.
“I think in our small city that we don’t need to go that far,” Zahn said.
Council Mike Nichols said products used to package meat and fish in grocery stores should be exempt, and there should be ways to help businesses if the ban causes financial hardships.
Most of his colleagues said they support all the recommendations and asked that the ordinance be drafted along those guidelines.
Councilwoman Ginger Marshall said she would rather increase public education and awareness and possibly switch residential trash service to a company that recycles polystyrene.
“It could be an alternative to banning it and causing businesses to have to buy more expensive food take-out containers,” she said.
“We want to have this material not even appear in a position where it could go into a recycling situation or to a landfill,” Zahn said in response. “We want to get it out of the waste stream.”
Zahn said he couldn’t find data about negative impacts to businesses. He also he made a list of pros and cons and the only pro was that polystyrene is a good insulator.
“I don’t think people are necessarily going to wash these things out and put them in their recycling bin,” Nichols said. “That just seems like a pain in the butt. And then you can make the argument that you’re wasting water.”
Mayor Lesa Heebner said the ban should be implemented in phases, similar to the way the city enacted its ban on single-use plastic bags.
No residents spoke to support or oppose the ban. However, the city received emails from representatives from the American Chemistry Council and California Restaurant Association.
In its letter the ACC opposed “any restrictions that limit food vendors from using polystyrene foam foodservice containers” because it “falsely assumes that banning one type of food packaging material will result in an overall reduction in litter.”
A ban also “overlooks many environmental, safety and health benefits associated with polystyrene food service containers compared to alternatives; and if enacted, would impose higher operating costs on restaurants and other food providers, especially small and medium sized businesses,” the letter states.
It goes on to note “(a)ll packaging leaves an environmental footprint regardless of the material type. It takes energy and raw materials to produce, transport, and recover or dispose of any material. So it is important to measure all of these impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of a product.”
According to the email, polystyrene cups weigh less than comparable paper packaging products, which means fewer air emissions when transporting products.
The ACC also notes that a polystyrene hot beverage cup requires about 50 percent less energy to produce than a similar plastic-coated paperboard cup with a corrugated cup sleeve.
“ACC certainly shares your concerns over the implications of litter; however, focusing on a single material type does not reduce litter,” the email states.
In its letter the California Restaurant Association agreed “marine debris is a serious issue, however discriminatory selection and elimination of a given type of food service product is an ineffective approach.”
“Comprehensive efforts should be aimed at reducing ALL composition of litter, not individual products, so that overall volume of material reaching the marine environment is reduced,” the letter states.
The CRA also said alternative packaging materials can often be two or three times more expensive.
Once the draft ordinance is presented to council it must go through two readings before being adopted. Implementation is usually about a month after that.