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San Diego council approves long-delayed ban on polystyrene foam food containers, coolers and pool toys

A person pushes a cart laden with restaurant supplies, including boxes of plastic foam bowls, through a warehouse.
Plastic foam products like these are to be banned under a plan in San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

The legislation, which is scheduled to take effect in April, also will make straws and plastic utensils available only by request.

San Diego became the largest city in California to ban food containers, coolers and pool toys made of plastic foam when the City Council approved long-delayed legislation on a 7-1 vote Nov. 15.

The legislation also requires restaurants and food delivery services to stop giving straws and plastic utensils unless customers request them.

The council must approve the ban again on a second reading next month. It is scheduled to take effect April 1.

Supporters of the ban say foam products poison marine life and damage the health of people who eat seafood because foam is not biodegradable and continuously breaks into steadily smaller pieces. The items can enter local waterways and easily get consumed by wildlife after they break down, critics say.

The products, often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, are made of the chemical polystyrene.

“Single-use plastic waste, specifically polystyrene, ends up in our creeks and canyons and reaches our beaches and the ocean and is physically present in the fish we eat,” said Councilman Joe LaCava, chairman of the council’s Environment Committee.

San Diego’s ban covers foam food containers, bowls, plates, trays, cups, lids, egg cartons, coolers, ice chests, pool toys, dock floats and mooring buoys. Retail stores wouldn’t be able to sell those products, and residents wouldn’t be able to use them at city parks and beaches.

Restaurants would have to stop using foam food containers and retailers wouldn’t be allowed to sell foam pool toys or coolers.

San Diego joins more than 130 other California cities with bans on polystyrene, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Imperial Beach.

Though San Diego is thus far the largest city in California to ban foam, Los Angeles is scheduled to follow suit next month. San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland already have bans.

San Diego’s ban, initially approved in 2019, has been delayed nearly four years by litigation filed by restaurants and foam container companies that sought a comprehensive analysis of the ban’s potential environmental effects.

The city delayed enforcement and conducted the analysis, which concluded that the environmental benefits of banning plastic foam far outweigh a slight increase in truck pollution caused by the switch from foam to heavier paper products.

Nearly all national and regional restaurant chains long ago stopped using polystyrene in response to lobbying from environmental groups and backlash from customers concerned that foam isn’t biodegradable.

But many taco shops, pizza parlors, convenience stores and other small businesses continue to use foam products to save money.

To soften the impact on those businesses, San Diego’s planned ban includes delays and hardship exemptions.

“Many businesses have already made the switch,” LaCava said, emphasizing that city officials would much prefer full compliance than levying fines. “The intent is not to be punitive but to convert everybody.”

Businesses with annual incomes of less than $500,000 would not need to comply with the ban for the first year after it takes effect, giving them until April 2024.

There also are hardship exemptions for businesses that either can’t find a reasonable alternative to polystyrene or have entered long-term contracts for non-compliant products before the new city law takes effect.

City officials said they will take an education-first approach with businesses, with enforcement and fines coming only after warnings and attempts to get businesses into compliance.

Still, representatives of the foam container and local restaurant industries lobbied unsuccessfully for changes.

Container companies asked the city to analyze a study indicating that polystyrene food containers prevent food poisoning because they control temperature better than other containers.

The restaurant industry asked city officials to delay the effective date to December. They also asked that “upon request” be changed to “upon offer” in the rules affecting straws and plastic utensils.

Councilman Chris Cate, the council’s only Republican, cast the lone dissenting vote. He did not give a reason.

For details about the law, go to sandiego.gov/environmental-services/recycling/pf-ban.

— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.


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