The vote by Watsonville, Calif., city council March 24 to ban expanded polystyrene take-out food packaging underscores the difficult challenge the industry faces in preventing coastal communities from enacting such bans.
The Plastics Food Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., presented a battery of information and statistics, including a staff report from the nearby city of Carmel, Calif., which concluded that the problem of food packaging waste litter has not improved since that city's ban went into effect 20 years ago.
ACC also presented a Santa Barbara, Calif., city council report that said a PS ban won't improve the environment if an industrial composting infrastructure does not exist.
But Watsonville, Calif., still decided to join more than 30 other communities statewide with PS packaging bans. If aproved at a second reading on April 14, the ban will go into effect on June 13.
The overriding consideration driving the ban in Watsonville and other coastal communities is unsightly litter, as spelled out in a March 17 memo to city council from the Watsonville Department of Public Works and Utilities.
The benefits of eliminating the use of polystyrene foam 'to-go' packaging include a reduction in the visual impact of litter, which creates a financial cost to city residents and an environmental cost to natural resources, the memo said.
The memo also pointed out that PS foam is not recyclable in Santa Cruz County or in the Monterey Bay area, and that the city's recycling program accepts all types of plastics except PS containers, blocks, peanuts and trays.
While it is technically possible to recycle polystyrene foam, said the memo, the recycling industry has not found the collection and processing of polystyrene foam to be economically feasible [because of] the cost of transporting such an extremely light material that contains a small amount of plastic and a large amount of air.
Larry McIntyre, vice president and general manager of food-service disposable packaging distributor Recycling Professionals Inc. in West Linn, Ore., said that the difficulty of halting such initiatives isn't going to go away anytime soon.
This is a big, big issue in California that is going to cause all sorts of problems, said McIntyre, who nine months ago abandoned his 15-year-effort to recycle PS food-service containers from suburban Portland, Ore., schools in a closed-loop system.
Instead of fighting people about these issues, we need to look at it from the community's perspective and ask ourselves, 'Why did they do it?' McIntyre said. If they have a solid waste problem, that becomes our problem.
Proclamations from the industry that bans won't reduce litter, but just change what products are littered, or that the industry is willing to work with communities to identify and implement solutions to prevent litter, won't work, either, he said.
The industry has to come up with a way to recycle material and get it back, or they will lose that segment to an alternative item, McIntyre said. We are running out of time.
The Watsonville ban applies to all businesses including restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores and delicatessens that sell food directly to consumers. The PS ban applies to all containers, clamshells, bowls, plates, trays, cartons, cups, lids, straws, stirrers, forks, spoons, knives, napkins and other items designed for one-time use for prepared foods.
The law requires all food providers in the city to use biodegradable, compostable or recyclable products, with recyclable products defined as a material accepted as part of the city's recycling program.
There is a one-time, one-year exemption if a food provider can prove undue hardship because alternative products cost 15 percent more than the PS products they would replace.