San Diego Straight-Up Bans Styrofoam in City-Owned Parks, Beaches, Libraries

The war on plastic marches on.



San Diego is getting in on the plastic-banning craze sweeping the nation with a new law prohibiting the use of polystyrene foam products a.k.a Styrofoam.

On Monday, the San Diego City Council voted 5-3 to ban the distribution or use of egg cartons, food trays, or any other "food service ware" containing polystyrene foam. Any polystyrene ice chests, beach toys, or dock floats used in the city would need to be completely encased in a non-polystyrene material.

The law also cracks down on plastic utensils and straws, requiring customer to explicitly request one before a restaurant can give them out.

Opponents of the measure included local restaurants who fretted that a ban on cheap polystyrene foam packaging would increase costs, and even put their whole businesses at risk.

"We're not huge. It's a small business and we're just trying to make ends meet," said Danny Haisha, owner of a local pizzeria and opponent of the ban, at Monday's city council meeting. "I'm going to have to raise my pricing, and possibly fire more people just to cover the costs [of the Styrofoam ban]. It's difficult for a small business to truly handle."

The California Restaurant Association noted that the replacement materials made of paper or other plastics businesses would now have to use cost as much as 145 percent more than traditional polystyrene foam packaging.

The ban's proponents waved away these concerns, saying that whatever costs the restaurant industry bear would be made up for by the positive economic impact of pristine, stryrofoam-free beaches.

"The aesthetic degradation of our beaches from EPS litter can have a much greater impact on tourism, a $10 billion industry, than the overstated dangers to the restaurant industry," reads one letter of support from a coalition of environmental groups, including local chapters of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

"I feel we need to move forward with this to protect our oceans, marine life and ourselves," said Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, another ban proponent. "We just have to do something."

Unlike many polystyrene or straw bans—which typically target just distribution by businesses—San Diego's ban also prohibits simple use in certain circumstances. The bill's text would prohibit anyone using polystyrene on city-owned or operated properties or vehicles.

That means anyone carrying a carrying a foam cup of coffee into one of San Diego's many parks, libraries, police stations, fire stations, airports, stadiums, transitional housing projects, cemeteries, or public beaches would be in violation of this new ban.

What exactly the penalties might be for these scofflaw Styrofoam sippers is hard to tell. The text of the ban says that a first-time offender will earn only a written warning. Repeat violators would, however, be subject to any penalties found in the city's municipal code, meaning anything from administrative citations and fines to possibly even arrest.

So in addition to the extra costs restaurants and cafes will have to cope with, the San Diego City Council is giving these business owners exceedingly little idea of what sanctions they might face if they do violate the new law.

And while the stated goals of San Diego's Styrofoam ban won't do much of anything to advance them. The world's oceans are indeed filling up with trash, but the vast majority of that trash comes from coastal countries within Africa and Asia, which lack developed waste management systems.

It's understandable that a coastal city like San Diego would also want to keep its beaches free from trash, polystyrene foam or not. Fortunately, there are already laws on the books against littering which addresses the problem in a far more direct way.

The law will go into effect in January 2019.