Oakland, Calif., is the first U.S. city to pass a ban on polystyrene foam containers and require that restaurants and food-service operators use biodegradable and compostable containers as an alternative - provided they are available at the same price.
Other cities, including Portland, Ore., and Santa Monica, Calif., have passed bans on PS takeout packaging, but without adding the requirement to switch to biodegradable and compostable containers, said Michael H. Levy, senior director of the Polystyrene Packaging Council, which is part of the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va.
The Oakland ban, enacted June 27, goes into effect Jan. 1. But whether it will lead to more environmentally friendly containers in the near future is debatable, said Johnnise Foster Downs, government affairs director for the California Restaurant Association in Sacramento. ``There won't be an affordable alternative'' short term, as most corn-based plastic products cost 30 percent more and aren't designed to be used with hot products, she said.
Levy agreed. ``A lot of the new materials cost more and are aimed for composting but are not good for hot foods.''
As a result, Downs said restaurant and fast-food operators are likely to switch to wax-coated paper products and bleached paperboard, at least initially - which won't solve litter or recycling issues. ``Just because you pass a mandate doesn't mean an alternative will be available,'' she said.
The Oakland ban was driven by a California Integrated Waste Management Board study, which found that 15 percent of litter collected in storm drains is from PS foam containers. The study follows a tax enacted on restaurant owners four months ago to help defray the cost of litter programs in the city.
Levy is concerned that other communities will follow suit, as San Francisco introduced a similar measure this week that also would go into effect Jan. 1. About 7 million pounds of PS are used annually in San Francisco, according to city officials.
The San Francisco proposal would apply to about 3,400 restaurants but would exempt catering companies and soup kitchens. It would not require restaurants and food vendors to use biodegradable and compostable containers.
But the city would be required to make available to food-service operators a list of alternative materials that fit into that category.
In June, San Francisco banned the sale, manufacture and distribution of polycarbonate baby bottles containing bisphenol A, as well as pacifiers, toys and children's raincoats containing some phthalates. It also considered a ban on plastic bags last year, until supermarket chains agreed to reduce the number of plastic bags used and make greater efforts to persuade customers to recycle.
``I suspect many other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit'' in proposing bans on PS and plastic bags, particularly in California, because of the mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to California communities that they eliminate trash in storm drains, Levy said. ``Plastic bags and takeout food packaging'' are likely to be top targets in California's anti-litter efforts, he said.