California Legislature fails to pass ban on EPS takeout containers

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SACRAMENTO, CALIf. (Sept. 9, 2:15 p.m. ET) — A measure that would have banned expanded polystyrene takeout packaging in California has been shelved without a vote in the state Assembly.

Senate Bill 568, which would have gone into effect statewide Jan. 1, 2016, would have applied to PS cups, bowls, trays, containers and clamshells. It would have been the first statewide ban on PS packaging in the U.S.

The bill was placed in the inactive file Sept. 8, meaning it could surface again in 2012. It had passed the Senate in May.

“I am disappointed we were not able to get SB 568 off the Assembly floor this year,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, in a prepared statement. “The money and effort spent to kill this bill was too great to overcome. We simply ran out of time.”

Both Pactiv Corp. and Dart Container Corp., which have PS plants in the state, had argued that the ban would have resulted in a loss of jobs in California. Likewise, the California Chamber of Commerce had placed the bill on its list of job-killing legislation.

“We’re very pleased that the Assembly realized that SB 568 was bad policy and that it wouldn’t have reduced litter and that it would hurt businesses and that it would jeopardize the good recycling strides we’ve made,” said Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs for Dart.

Dart, which is the largest global producer of PS foam cups in the U.S., does not make school food-service trays, but began recycling them two years at the urging of a distributor that sells PS lunch trays to roughly 80 percent of the schools in Southern California and collects them for recycling at a rate of roughly 1 million a month.

This past May, it opened a wash-and-dry line at its plant in Corona, Calif., to better recycle dirty PS at that site. The line has the capacity to clean slightly more than 3 million pounds of PS foam a year. Dart also has PS foam drop-off centers at all 13 of its plants in the U.S., and at its plant in Mexico City, and helped expand the number of California cities that recycle PS foam to 43.

Dart compacts the foam into 45-lound bricks and ships them to Timbron International Inc. in Stockton, Calif., to make interior moldings, and to Nepco Industrial Co. Ltd. to make high-end picture frames at its plant in Chino, Calif.

The American Chemistry Council also was involved in the debate.

“When legislators learned more about ... the bill’s impact on jobs and the state budget, support for the ban faded,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for Washington–based ACC. “An economic analysis for similar legislation in 2009 [done by Keybridge LLC for ACC and Pactiv] concluded that California would lose nearly $1.4 billion in output, $335 million in earnings and close to 8,000 jobs.

“And that doesn’t even include the impact on the Department of General Services budget, state enforcement costs and the untold millions of dollars it would have cost schools that use plastic foam lunch trays,” Christman added. “The state focus should be improving opportunities to recycle, not banning valuable products.”

“The battle over this bill is not done,” said Miriam Gordon, the San-Francisco-based California director of Clean Water Action. “It is poised to be heard on the Assembly floor next year.

“This is a match-up of David vs. Goliath,” she said. “Despite massive spending and efforts of well-funded chemical and plastic groups [and] despite the paltry budgets over organizations like mine, we moved this bill way further than any of the three previous polystyrene ban bills in the California Legislature.”

“With increases on the cost of oil driving up the price of polystyrene, and demand for sustainable food packaging increasing 17 percent each year already, companies like Dart and Pactiv are already responding by offering lines of sustainable food packaging,” Gordon said. “Are we going to let the manufacturing of the alternatives continue to move to China, or are we going to attract more manufacturers of alternatives to California by making this state the nexus of demand for sustainable packaging? It largely depends on the outcome of SB 568 [and that] won’t be determined until the 2012 legislative year.”

Environmentalists also argue that a ban is needed because PS packaging is a major source of litter along coastlines, and in rivers and oceans.

“Our investigation of the debris flowing from urban Los Angeles streets to the [Los Angeles and San Gabriel] rivers found that, in terms of the number of pieces of debris, 71 percent were foam,” research scientist Charles Moore said in a study released Aug. 31 by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Moore founded the Long Beach-based, nonprofit foundation in 1994.

Forty-three cities and three counties in California have bans on PS takeout packaging. More than three-quarters of those communities are in the area between the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco, and most of them are coastal communities.

The bans represent a combined area that accounts for less than 10 percent of the state’s population.

Further up the coast, there are bans in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Issaquah, Wash.

The proposed bill had included an exemption from the ban for communities that could demonstrate a 60 percent recycling rate for PS food containers.

In addition, school districts would have had an additional 18 months to comply, and also could have been exempt from the ban if they established a PS recycling program with a 60 percent recycling rate.