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Restaurant association opposes Styrofoam ban

ENCINITAS — A powerful lobbying arm for California’s restaurants has come out against Encinitas’ proposed ban on Styrofoam food service products.

The California Restaurant Association’s San Diego County chapter submitted a letter Oct. 2 to the City Council informing them of the group’s opposition, several days after a number of local restaurant owners packed a public meeting in September to implore the city to kill the ordinance.

Officials with the restaurant association said that the city’s ban could drive restaurants out of business or out of the city, as the cost of alternative food service packaging could be as much as triple the cost of Styrofoam packaging.

“To force this on someone with razor-thin (profit) margins, it is really hard for them to do,” said Chris Duggan, governmental affairs director for the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. “The alternatives are drastically more expensive. They will likely wind up taking their business elsewhere.”

Restaurant representatives said that in addition to being more expensive, the alternative products don’t work as well as Styrofoam in insulating hot or cold foods. At least one restaurant chain, Surf Brothers Teriyaki, switched from alternative products back to Styrofoam after numerous customer complaints.

The city has been exploring a ban on expanded polystyrene products — the generic name for Styrofoam — for more than a year. The ubiquitous packaging product has been seen by officials as a nuisance that winds up polluting local beaches and waterways.

Officials with San Diego’s chapter of the Surfrider Foundation said that more than 80 percent of the waste found on the region’s beaches during cleanups is plastic and Styrofoam single-use products, including food packaging containers.

Annually, about 20,000 pieces of styrofoam are picked up at San Diego County’s beaches, including Moonlight State Beach, said Roger Kube of the Surfrider Foundation.

The City Council is slated to vote on a first reading of the ban Oct. 14. Several restaurant owners have called on the city to encourage residents to recycle their Styrofoam products, rather than discarding of them in the trash, which would limit the amount of the product that winds up in landfills or in local beaches.

Duggan said that many consumers are unaware that Styrofoam products are recyclable as long as they clean any food residue off of it before putting it into recycling receptacles. “The biggest concern when you recycle it is food contamination, but that can be easily dealt with,”

Duggan said. Duggan said that restaurant owners and representatives have called on other cities — rather than ban a product — to adopt incentive-based programs that encourage restaurants to recycle or replace Styrofoam, citing a Surfrider Foundation program that started last year as an example.

“We just want cities to look at alternatives such as recycling before taking a product out of the marketplace, especially one that small businesses rely on and does serve a purpose,” Duggan said.

Despite having its voluntary program, the Surfrider Foundation has endorsed Encinitas’ proposed ban, which they said is the environmentally wise decision.

Kube, citing several published reports on the costs of alternative food services products, said that the restaurant association’s claims of the costs being prohibitive are “overblown.”

One report done by the City of Burlingame in advance of approval of its ordinance showed that the alternative materials rose costs one to three cents per unit, Kube said.

“Is that going to put a restaurant out of business?” Kube said. “I can’t imagine it would.” Those costs, he said, are offset by the environmental damage that is done annually from Styrofoam debris. As for recycling Styrofoam, Kube said that recycling should be seen as a “last resort.” “It’s a nonrenewable resource,” he said.

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3 comments

John Eldon October 9, 2015 at 7:28 am

We need to get a consistent, truthful story on whether EPS packages which have contained food are truly recyclable. The restaurant association claims they are, but many citizens have observed precisely the opposite story. I strongly suspect it depends on the type of food, since EPS is porous.

The food court at UCSD has largely eliminated EPS containers, and this does not appear to have created a significant financial or other hardship for either the food vendors or their customers.

In the meantime, what can John Q. Public do? Bring your own reusable food container when you go to a restaurant, so you at least will not have to use EPS to hold the leftovers in your “doggie bag.”

Aaron Burgin October 9, 2015 at 7:42 am

Hey John,

Great point re: recycling of EPS. I was a bit surprised myself to find out that it’s recyclable just because I never have. But if you look on Edco’s site for Encinitas, it’s listed. I think the main kicker, as you’ve alluded to, is food contamination. If your box has food stains and residue, once it gets to the MRF, it’s likely getting trashed and headed to a landfill.

Mitchell P. October 15, 2015 at 9:40 am

Just because styrofoam is technically “recyclable” does not mean it is feasible to do so, or that it is currently being “recycled” in San Diego county. Yes, single-use styrofoam food containers are technically “recyclable,” but they need to be totally clean (read -“unused) in order to do so. Otherwise EDCO would have to manually wash every single used container that came to it, which they don’t do.

Right now in San Diego, styrofoam food containers are NOT recycled. Soiled foam containers put in the blue bin are simply sorted & tossed in the landfill. Bulk styrofoam, like ice chests and packing blocks for TV’s, etc, is recycled. I hope that clears up some of the confusion.

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