Polystyrene ban: Bill would put California first

California would become the first state in the nation to ban the use of polystyrene foam to-go food containers under legislation pending in the Assembly.
Opponents are pushing hard to keep the measure bottled up in committee. A key reason is that Gov. Jerry Brown could sign it into law.

As mayor of Oakland, Brown secured elimination of plastic foam cups and containers at the Oakland Coliseum.

Various environmental groups back the ban as a way to reduce litter and marine pollution while encouraging greater use of biodegradable or compostable alternatives.

More than 47 California cities and eight counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, already have complete or partial bans on polystyrene foam food and drink containers.
“Surfrider Foundation is a co-sponsor of this bill which phases out expanded polystyrene take-out ware, as part of our Rise Above Plastics program to keep foam particles off our beaches and out of our waterways,” said Angela Howe, a lawyer with the foundation.

Polystyrene is a type of plastic. Expanded polystyrene, which is puffed with area, is what is used for to-go food containers like the hinged-lid, “clamshell” boxes with the tongue-and-groove latch. “Beaded” polystyrene is used for coffee cups and the protective packaging that goes around electronics and other fragile items.

This bill affects only food containers, not packaging polystyrene which has a larger rate of recycling because it doesn’t have to be cleaned of food residue before melting it down and recasting it as anything from molding to picture frames.

Opponents counter that the measure eliminates jobs, targets only a portion of products made with polystyrene and does little to reduce California’s overall waste stream.
“There’s jobs at stake and tax dollars. And if you ban foam there will still be litter. It’ll just be litter of a different kind,” said Mark Spencer of Pactiv Corp., which operates two polystyrene manufacturing plants in California.

Spencer said if the bill becomes law Pactiv will close its polystyrene plants in Fresno and Bakersfield with combined payrolls of $19.5 million and 450 employees.

Unlike some other polystyrene manufacturers, Pactiv also makes food ware from alternative materials like sugarcane pulp or corn fiber.  

Under the bill – SB 568 by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat – restaurants and other sellers of food could no longer use polystyrene foam containers starting Jan. 1, 2016. The same ban would apply to school districts beginning January 1 the following year.  

Restaurants and schools could still use polystyrene containers, which restaurant owners and foam makers say is the most economical choice, if cities, counties or school districts create a way to recycle 60 percent of its foam waste.

“The threshold was purposely set high,” said John Casey, Lowenthal’s chief of staff.

“The goal wasn’t to provide an easy target. One of the arguments opponents use against the bill is that recycling of polystyrene is increasing. Our view is that it should increase more.”

Statistics suggest the level of recycling won’t increase much because there isn’t that much to recycle.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports in 2009 that of the 243 million tons of solid waste generated nationally in 2009 – before recycling – 12.3 percent was plastic.
“All the foam put together is about 1 percent of the waste stream and food service foam is about one-third of that 1 percent,” said Mark Westerfield, a spokesman of Dart Industries, a major manufacturer of expanded polystyrene cups and food containers which says it too would close its two California polystyrene plants if the bill passes.

California’s Integrated Waste Management Board’s 2008 Statewide Waste Characterization Study, the most recent available, shows plastic accounting for 3.8 million tons of disposed waste, about 9.6 percent of the total. Organic compounds like food, manure, leaves, grass and pruning accounted for more than 32 percent.

San Francisco, which banned polystyrene containers and cups in 2007, found in a subsequent audit that of 3,973 pieces of large litter collected in 2009, the decrease in foam trash was offset by an increase in containers made from alternative containers.

Recycling of polystyrene has increased. A Chino firm makes molding and picture frames from old packaging and food container foam.

“This bill will hurt us in a big way,” said Tommy Kim, director of U.S. operations for NEPCO, which is based in Chino. “A large portion of our recycled styrene is food and cups.”
Supporters counter that the polystyrene market is shrinking. Manufacturers admit that the growth part of their industry is in alternatives.

“But the customers and the industry should decide,” Spencer said. “It shouldn’t be legislated.”    

Palo Alto’s World Centric supports Lowenthal’s bill. The company makes a variety of compostable trays, hinged boxes, coffee cups lids and utensils.

“We continue to grow even when the economy hasn’t been so good over the past few years,” said Aseem Das, World Centri’cs founder and CEO. “A large part is consumer awareness, environmental concern.”

The proposed ban on polystyrene cups and food is the latest in a series of bills proposed by the Democratic majority in the Legislature to eliminate items they claim are major contributors to litter and pollution in the Golden State.

Garnering the most attention in 2010 was a measure by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat, to forbid grocery and convenience stores from giving customers single-use plastic bags.

In 2009, another bill attempted to ban the use of polystyrene, non-recyclable plastic or non-recyclable paper containers by restaurants or other sellers of food.

That bill came on the heels of a 2008 measure that would have required all single-use food containers be compostable or recyclable.

None made it out of the Legislature even though then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke his normal policy of not taking positions on pending legislation and endorsed Brownley’s measure as a “great victory for our environment.”

The chief opponent of Brownley’s bill was the American Chemical Council, which also is fighting Lowenthal’s bill.

As with Schwarzenegger and Brownley’s bill, there is a good possibility if Lowenthal’s measure reaches Brown, he will sign it.

Like his GOP predecessor, the Democratic governor refuses to take public positions on bills before they reach his desk.  

However, Brown’s campaign website touts among his environmental achievements as Oakland mayor making Oakland Coliseum “the first ballpark in the United States to use bioplastic cups.” Doing so, the website says, eliminated the “Coliseum’s need for Styrofoam and plastic.”

Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dupont Corporation for expanded polystyrene.

During 2006, Brown’s last year as mayor, the city council passed a citywide ban of disposable polystyrene food and drink containers.  It took effect Jan. 1, 2007.  

Brown’s actions as mayor aren’t always reflective of his policy choices as governor. As mayor, Brown used redevelopment to invigorate downtown Oakland but then pushed for the statewide elimination of all such agencies in his initial state budget plan.

“The governor will assess the (Lowenthal) bill on its merits –
should it arrive on his desk,” said Evan Westrup, a Brown spokesman.

Should is the operative word. Although Lowenthal’s bill passed the Senate with 21 votes – two from GOP lawmakers – it also had three Democratic “no” votes.

The measure had reached the floor of the Assembly but was pulled back to the lower house’s Appropriations Committee on a motion by its chair, Felipe Fuentes, a Los Angeles Democrat. It is now on the suspense file.

Without changes that satisfy Fuentes and a majority of the 17-member committee, that’s where the measure will stay until the end of the legislative session September 9.

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