Palo Alto has joining the growing list of communities in California, most of them in coastal areas, that have banned the use of polystyrene takeout food packaging. The ban, which goes into effect April 22, 2010, applies to containers, clamshells, bowls, plates, cartons and cups, but not straws, utensils or hot cup lids.
In approving the bill April 27, the city rejected an offer from Mason, Mich.-based Dart Container Corp. to purchase a densifier that would help the city recycle both takeout PS packaging and the bulky foam used to package electronic goods such as televisions and computers.
The Palo Alto Recycling Center had stopped accepting PS packaging peanuts and PS blocks used for consumer goods packaging in January. Ongoing logistical challenges and quality-control challenges related to the minimal recycling material for expanded polystyrene make even the recycling program for peanuts and blocks infeasible, the city council said in a document supporting its call for a ban.
Part of the rationale for a ban was the economy and the recycling markets in general, said Mike Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. It is a difficult decision for a city to add recycling when the market is down.
Palo Alto becomes the 23rd California city to ban PS takeout packaging. There also is a countywide ban in Santa Cruz, and four California cities and one county prohibit the use of PS packaging at municipal facilities.
Seattle has a ban on PS takeout packaging that went into effect Jan. 1, and Philadelphia and the state of California are weighing proposals to ban PS takeout packaging.
A recent analysis of the California bill, conducted by Elizabeth MacMillan of the Natural Resources Committee in the State Assembly, points out several unintended consequences and implementation challenges of the proposed state ban. One challenge: the sparse number of cities in the state five, all in northern California that provide curbside food collection, which could also pick up containers made of degradable plastics.
The bill analysis actually reinforces our point about the lack of composting infrastructure and facilities, Levy said, adding: We get a lot of complaints from restaurants that the alternate materials aren't performing as well as an insulating material.
The analysis also pointed to several other concerns about the bill, which was referred on April 27 to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
For example, the analysis said that a provision of the bill requiring all-paper takeout containers to have 100 percent post-consumer content may be problematic and could cause food vendors to use less paper and more plastic.
In addition, it said it would be unlikely that all food vendors would be able to comply by the proposed effect date of Jan. 1, 2010. Because of that, the analysis suggested an effective date of Jan 1, 2011, and recommended that the bill be limited to PS containers.
But, as Levy pointed out, a ban on PS takeout packaging won't solve the state's litter problem.
Litter audits in San Francisco show that its ban on polystyrene foam packaging has not reduced litter, Levy said.
An audit in April 2008 prepared for the San Francisco environment department showed that on an item-by-item basis, the 36 percent reduction in PS litter was offset by an equal increase in coated paperboard. The audit was conducted by HBR/Brown, Vence & Associates Inc. of Roseville, Calif., and environmental management services firm MGM Management of Osoyoos, British Columbia.
A lot of the bans are proposed with the idea that they will solve the litter problem. But the San Francisco study underscores that a product ban doesn't reduce the amount of litter. It just changes the mix of litter and substitutes one litter problem for another. We have to show cities that a ban won't make a difference, Levy said.
Levy noted that fewer than 5 percent of the cities in California have bans on PS takeout packaging and that most of them are in coastal communities. As the economy picks up, the markets for recycling materials will pick up, he said. We would hope that other cities who consider this are going to look at the sustainability aspect of PS packaging and its potential for recycling.
We continue to press our case [for] why PS foam packaging is an environmentally responsible choice and continue to point out that it costs 2-3 times less than the alternatives, Levy said.