WASHINGTON — The San Jose City Council voted this week to move forward with preliminary procedures to ban expanded polystyrene use for food containers in one of California's largest cities.
The 9-2 vote calls for the city to put together an Environmental Impact Report, which officials say is expected to take several months, and then publicly consider recommendations for implementing the PS phaseout before final approval. The City Council plans to finalize the ordinance and vote on it some time this summer.
The preliminary plans also include conducting environmental impact studies on a potential countywide PS ban that could speed adoption of similar measures in other local cities and lessen competitive disadvantages for businesses in San Jose. They also call for the city to increase litter-reduction efforts and outreach to local businesses to explain the ban.
In a Feb. 4 memo detailing PS use and the possible impact of a ban in the San Jose area, Kerrie Romanow, the city's environmental services director, made recommendations for the proposed ordinance, including giving restaurants a one-year lead time on the ban; phasing it in, starting with national chains in 2014 before moving on to smaller restaurants in the second year; refraining from prescribing a replacement product, to allow restaurants to choose containers they think will work the best for their food; and offering exemptions "based on the lack of available suitable alternative products or on the basis of financial hardship." The San Jose City Council would also have to approve $1 million in spending for public outreach on the ban.
The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association oppose the ban, favoring more robust recycling efforts and, saying restaurants, caterers, delis and other food providers will see operating costs rise if a ban is adopted, as replacement containers can be to three times more expensive and still not as effective as PS. They were joined in opposition to the ban last week by the American Chemistry Council.
"The move is at odds with the trend in California to increase polystyrene foam food-service recycling, including at curbside," Washington-based ACC said in a news release.
But the city of San Jose says PS recycling is too difficult and financially impractical, even for its extensive recycling program.
"San Jose implemented one of the first large city curbside recycling programs, back before it was cool. San Jose has been a leader on recycling in California. They very thoughtfully looked at including it in its program and they concluded that the best option for their community is to say it's not allowed there anymore," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which supports the ban.
Local PS bans already dot the California landscape, with 70 communities having enacted some form of a ban on PS containers. But after failed four attempts in the state Legislature for a California-wide ban — the most recent ending in September with a 45-26 failing vote — Californian activists seem to have put an end to the idea of a statewide ban on PS containers in favor of leaving it to local governments.
"The polystyrene ban pended for two years and failed at the state level," Murray said. "It's our conclusion that while we think polystyrene is problematic … it's not alone. There are a lot of other problem packaging besides polystyrene, especially in fast food."
CAW favors state legislation introduced this session that would hold producers more responsible for food packaging and allow communities to ban packaging that is not either compostable or compatible with local recycling facilities.
The plastics industry continues to press for more effort and greater awareness on the recycling side, especially when programs are already in place elsewhere in California, including LA.
Restricting PS foam food-service packaging will not eliminate waste or boost recycling, said Tim Shestek, senior director of the ACC in Sacramento. He said people mistakenly believe paper alternatives are being recycled. "There is no commercial recycling of these products," he said.