San Diego has just dreamed up a Styrofoam prohibition so harsh that it will require consumers to change their foam containers to alternative packaging when they visit city property.
The City Council recently voted 5-3 to approve an ordinance banning “the distribution of egg cartons, food service ware, and food trays which are made in whole or in part from polystyrene foam.” Also forbidden are “coolers, ice chests, pool or beach toys, or dock floats, mooring buoys, or navigation markers made with polystyrene foam, unless those items are encased in a non-polystyrene foam material.”
In addition, restaurants would not be allowed to hand out plastic utensils with takeout meals unless customers request them. The law would take effect in January, though there are provisions for delays for some businesses.
The ordinance outlaws, as well, the use of the foam items on municipal grounds. This means an item that is perfectly legal outside of or anywhere else in San Diego is considered contraband when it’s on city property. Councilman Scott Sherman, one of the three members who opposed the ban, asked before the vote what would happen if he tried to enter a public building with coffee in a Styrofoam cup that he bought outside the city.
“Do I have to put that in a different container before I come inside San Diego City Hall?” he asked.
He was told flatly that he would.
Criminalizing the possession and distribution of modern conveniences has become something of a race between California governments. The list of now-illicit everyday items includes the single-use plastic bags retailers have traditionally provided to customers (statewide), polystyrene containers (119 cities and counties), plastic straws at restaurants (statewide), and plastic flatware (several cities).
Several citizens who spoke before the vote complained about the Styrofoam and single-use plastics littering San Diego’s beaches, waterways, streets, and sidewalks. They have a point. Trash in the wrong places is both an aesthetic and environmental blight. It shouldn’t be tolerated. But as Sherman said, foam and plastic products do “not cause the litter, people cause the litter.”
State officials recognized this more than a decade ago. A 2004 report on the use and disposal of polystyrene issued by the Integrated Waste Management Board, now known as CalRecycle, suggested that the state should increase litter education efforts and urged lawmakers to “consider making litter a civil offense, to facilitate issuing litter tickets.”
Rather than turn their attention to the lawbreakers who create the piles of rubbish, San Diego and other cities would rather punish those who have done no wrong. Of course, it’s easier to enforce a ban than to prosecute litterers. A ban is also more politically advantageous. It allows politicians and activists to demonstrate their green bona fides on the public stage.
Properly disposed of, polystyrene is not an environmental threat. When fast-food packaging, the primary target of any Styrofoam ban, is buried in a landfill, it accounts for no more than one-third of 1 percent of the volume, according to research by University of Arizona anthropologist William J. Rathje, who literally made a landfill dive to see what we are throwing away.
Polystyrene can also be recycled (San Diego has a recycling program), reused, and applied as an energy source when burned in municipal incinerators. Foam can also be broken down into “chemically useful products” by applying bacteria that digest it.
Ban supporters also cited health concerns, and handily repeated statistics intended to alarm us about polystyrene’s presence in the food chain. Their claim is thin, however. Pacific Research Institute senior fellow Henry Miller tells us health scares are typically based on the 2011 addition of styrene, the chemical precursor of polystyrene, to the National Toxicology Program’s list of substances that are “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer. It was a precautionary conclusion, said Miller, founded on animal studies from industrial, rather than consumer, exposures.
Still, activists ran with their story and in doing so grossly misrepresented the danger of polystyrene. Conveniently left out of their campaign was the expert opinion of National Toxicology Program senior scientist and former Associate Director John Bucher, who said “the risks, in my estimation, from polystyrene are not very great. It’s not worth being concerned about.”
Because city rules require a second vote to approve an ordinance, the council will have to visit the ban again, and probably soon, since the date it would take effect isn’t far off. None of the members is likely to change their positions by then, but they could at least consider all the facts before voting, not just those the activists have lined up for them.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.