|California cities say goodbye to styrofoam containers|
By Mary Anne Ostrom
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Take-out junkies beware. Hoping to get the plastic out of fast food, San Francisco and Oakland are about to ban food establishments from using styrofoam.
The cities say it's not a war on fast-food joints, but a common sense step to stem plastics pollution at a time when new biodegradable alternatives are coming to market.
Polystyrene foam, better known as styrofoam, is just the start. In Oakland and San Francisco, the new laws not only ban the foam but also encourage food establishments to reduce their use of all plastic in favor of materials that are biodegradable or can be composted, such as SpudWare, the trademark for cutlery made of potato-starch.
Banning polystyrene has been on the political agenda for years. Berkeley led the nation with the first such ban more than a generation ago. Now, Oakland will enact a ban Jan 1., followed by San Francisco on June 1. San Jose environmental officials are closely watching what other cities are doing. And other cities, including Emeryville, Livermore and Capitola, have shown an interest in bans, too, all in the name of reducing plastic waste in landfills and the environment.
"Plastics are again high-profile," said Lanny Clavecilla, a spokesman for California's Integrated Waste Management Board. "You're seeing more attention in the area of how big a problem plastic is in pollution."
Paper and cardboard make it under the new rules, as do those traditional Chinese take-out boxes. But new plant-based products made of sugar cane, bamboo and rice pulp and other organic materials, dubbed bio-plastics, are even more environmentally friendly, they say.
Already the Oakland A's use biodegradable beverage cups, and at the University of California-Berkeley, dorm residents do take-out in bamboo products. Yahoo and the NUMMI car plant are among a growing number of local companies whose cafeterias use "bio-plastic" utensils, bowls and plates made from fermented corn or potato starch mixed with soy oil, or bagasse, a fibrous waste left over from processing sugar cane.
Food sellers who don't comply with the new laws could face fines as high as $250 in San Francisco and $500 in Oakland.
By encouraging alternatives to polystyrene, a growing number of California cities hope to reduce the amount of slowly degrading plastics in landfills. San Jose, Palo Alto and Gilroy years ago weighed bans. Instead, they opted to increase plastics recycling. But if San Jose develops a zero-waste policy, as other California cities are now doing, San Jose could consider a polystyrene ban, too, said Lindsey Wolf of the city's environmental services department.
Polystyrene foam containers and cups continue to be a major source of litter, say local environmental groups.
Small-restaurant owners who cater to take-out customers say alternatives - such as plant-based packaging or even paper cups - don't work as well and are considerably more expensive. Oakland officials estimate using polystyrene alternatives could add 30 cents to the cost of a meal.
"The customers might like it, but it costs more. It's not business-friendly," Adam Kwan, a manager at San Francisco Chinatown's Yee's Restaurant, said as his workers prepared lunch orders of duck and chicken in polystyrene foam containers.
But Enrique Arrieta, a tourist from Peru, called it "an excellent idea," as he ate his sweet-and-sour chicken lunch from such a container. "I don't like eating from this stuff. It doesn't feel natural."
The industry-backed Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group says polystyrene foam can be recycled, though it's costly, and polystyrene producers are involved in anti-litter campaigns to address governments' concerns. Group director Mike Levy says consider "that you have to put on two java sleeves or a second cup" to hold hot coffee in a paper cup. He argues, that's hardly reducing trash.
In a December 2004 report to the California state Legislature, the state's Integrated Waste Management Board concluded that the state needed a more comprehensive approach to managing all plastic waste, not just polystyrene foam. "While bans may help solve immediate problems, they are generally not an effective long-term solution," the report said. The current board has no position on the recent city bans.
With an estimated 3,400 restaurants in San Francisco alone, some supporters say the new big-city bans will put a spotlight on the Bay Area and could help a fledgling industry of "green" food packaging. Most such packaging is now imported from Asia, where its use is commonplace.
Oakland already is working with Bay Area restaurant suppliers to stock bio-based alternatives and as demand increases, they predict prices will fall.
"Many Bay Area companies want to be green," said Allen King, whose Excellent Packaging & Supply markets SpudWare and other environmentally sensitive products to food-service companies. "The municipal bans will have a bigger impact."
WEIGHING PROS, CONS
The battle to ban polystyrene food containers (better known as styrofoam) in the Bay Area spans two decades. Berkeley was the first in the nation, in 1990. Oakland will institute its ban Jan 1. San Francisco follows June 1. Officials in San Jose and other Santa Clara County cities have considered bans over the years, but instead backed recycling alternatives.
_Polystyrene food packaging represents about 15 percent of the litter in the California storm-drain system.
_It takes several decades to 100 years to deteriorate in the environment or landfill. The recycling rate for such packaging in California was 0.2 percent in 2001.
_Biodegradable alternatives are being developed.
_The California Integrated Waste Management Board in 2004 stated that while bans "may help solve immediate problems, they are generally not an effective long-term solution" and called for a comprehensive approach to plastics pollution.
_Alternatives are more expensive; Oakland officials estimate the ban will add 30 cents to the cost of a take-out meal.
_Some restaurant owners say it's the cheapest and best product to keep food hot, which can help avoid bacteria growth.
Sources: Mercury News reporting; the California Integrated Waste Management Board
DOING YOUR PART
_Lug your own mug when getting beverages to go. Many popular Bay Area coffeehouses already use paper in place of styrofoam. Regardless, ask for a discount. You're saving them on garbage or dishwashing costs.
_If you take food home, bring along your own Tupperware-style container. You've got a better chance of avoiding spills, too.
_Look for restaurants and take-out joints that use easy-to-recycle packaging.
_Ask your favorite restaurants to consider using containers that are biodegradable or can be composted.
_If you are heading straight home to eat, decline the plastic flatware, napkins and chopsticks if you've got a supply in the kitchen.
_For more tips, go to Californians Against Waste at cawrecycles.org or bringyourown.org.
© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
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