City Council votes to ban polystyrene foam

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego City Council voted 5-3 Monday to ban the use and distribution of polystyrene foam in the city.

The City Council's Rules Committee approved the proposal by a 3-2 vote in July, sending it to the full council. The full ban, penned by City Councilman Chris Ward, prohibits the use and sale of egg cartons, food service containers, coolers, ice chests, pool or beach toys, mooring buoys and navigation markers made partially or completely of polystyrene foam, commonly called Styrofoam. The city's Environmental Services Department will also have to provide a list of safe, affordable alternatives to polystyrene products should the ban go into effect.

Polystyrene products don't degrade the way more natural products do, taking hundreds of years to break down. Because of this long life span, marine and terrestrial fauna can and do mistake polystyrene for food.

The ordinance still needs to come back to the council for a final vote.

City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez proposed a subsequently approved amendment to the ban that will provide a 12-month waiver for small businesses that bring in less than $500,000 annually.

"Banning Styrofoam is the right thing to do for the environment but we also have to give our small businesses a chance to adapt to the change," Gomez said. "... The waiver protects our small businesses as they plan the transition to more environmentally friendly products."

"Our growing reliance on disposable plastic to fuel our `culture of convenience' is not without cost. Globally, an average of eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean," said Roger Kube, a policy adviser with the 5 Gyres Institute, when Ward introduced the proposal in May. "Once there, sunlight and currents shred plastic debris into smaller particles called microplastics, which absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals up the marine food chain and into our bodies. From plankton to fish, and to humans that eat seafood, plastic pollution is changing the very chemistry of life."

Only five speakers against the ban spoke out, mostly citing the cost to switch as the dominant factor.  They argued it will have a disproportionately negative effect on local restaurants who may not be able to afford more expensive alternatives to polystyrene containers the way larger chain restaurants can. A study by the California Restaurant Association, San Diego Chapter, found that the ban could force small food service businesses to spend up to 145 percent more for polystyrene alternatives like compostable paper.

"We are disappointed and unfortunately not surprised by the vote today," said Chris Duggan with the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. "We are very concerned by the rush to pass a sweeping policy without data, without an economic analysis, without an EIR, and most importantly without addressing the realities the mandated costs will have on small mom and pop restaurants already struggling to make ends meet."

Mikey Knabb is executive manager of Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant, a small eatery in Kensington.  He said in the three years since they made the switch, he’s found products that were of comparable quality and price, and over the course of the three years, he has seen more options and better quality.  Putting the emphasis on community and the future of clean food is actually helping his bottom line, he said. “We don’t see the potential for future in our community if we continue to use single use plastic. It’s a pollutant to the oceans and something that can contaminate seafood.”

City Council members Ward, Bry, Gomez, Lorie Zapf and Myrtle Cole voted in favor of the ban, while Mark Kersey, Chris Cate and Scott Sherman voted against it. City Councilman David Alvarez was absent.

While a 6-3 majority would make the ban immune to Mayor Kevin Faulconer's veto power, but the 5-3 vote with Alvarez absent makes the future murkier. If Alvarez is present for the second vote on the ordinance, it will likely achieve the veto-proof majority.

Faulconer has not taken a position on the ban.