San Jose came closer to banning Styrofoam and expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers after the City Council voted 9-2 Tuesday to move forward with a phase-out. Councilmembers Johnny Khamis and Pete Constant opposed a ban.
Now the city will conduct an environmental review and come back with a resolution and plan to enact it this summer. If it goes through, the ban would start in January next year for larger chain restaurants and in 2015 for smaller establishments. Business owners would have the option to file hardship exemptions.
The vote came after nearly three hours of discussion and public testimony and a year after the city banned single-use plastic bags in 5,000 stores. That process included a $100,000 offer to delay action.
Restaurant owners opposing the ban at Tuesday’s meeting spoke about the cost of alternative packaging cutting into their bottom line. They also questioned how well other types of containers would keep food warm and hold up to liquids like coffee and soup. Representatives from companies that recycle Styrofoam urged the city to consider staying the ban and look into re-use options instead.
Andres Valencia, who owns Mexico Lindo restaurant, where he employs 27 people, said the ban coupled with rising state and county taxes and the upcoming minimum wage hike would devastate businesses like his.
“Are we going to have people take their own Tupperware into the restaurant to take their food home?” he asked sarcastically. “I don’t think all these bans … are going to make much of a difference.”
Speaking in support of the measure: A landfill operator who ships all his polystyrene to China, a class of eighth-graders, environmentalists, some teens from a local interfaith service organization and a representative from Republic Services, who said it’s not cost-effective to clean foam containers to recycle them.
Polystyrene is the most problematic litter in our waterways and the overwhelming majority comes from small restaurants, city and state regulators say. EPS is toxic and, when processed, it breaks into tiny pieces too difficult to clean up. Because it floats and lifts in the wind, the foam ends up in creeks, storm drains, rivers and eventually the ocean.
San Jose received an ultimatum from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce trash by 100 percent by 2022. Ideally, the city would install trash-capture nets in storm drains to collect litter before it makes its way into the waterways, says the board’s Executive Director Bruce Wolfe. Of course, that’s costly in terms of both capital and maintenance.
Wolfe commended the city for considering a phase-out approach placing responsibility on residents, too, that could set an example for other cities. Of course, San Jose isn’t the first in line to tackle the polystyrene container problem. If it agrees to the resolution, it would be the 60th city in the state, including Sunnyvale, Oakland, Fremont and San Francisco. At least four other Bay Area cities are considering the ban. Still, San Jose would be the largest municipality to adopt this type of ordinance.
“It’s a big ocean out there, and it’s a big bay, but we’re the largest city in the country to make this move,” Councilmember Sam Liccardo said prior to casting his supporting vote. “And if we do make this move, it’s going to have ripple effects.”