Polystyrene Ban Wagon

Appeared in Orange Coast Voice newspaper February 2008, page 11

The Polystyrene Ban Wagon
Laguna Beach will require biodegradable eating utensils
by Sarah S. Mosko Ph.D.


Foam cups and other food containers made from polystyrene are outlawed in Laguna, a first in Orange County.

“To-go” orders in Laguna Beach soon will have a new look because of a city ordinance passed last month prohibiting restaurants from using any polystyrene (PS) for food service cups and containers . . . an Orange County first.

Polystyrene (PS) is most recognizable in its foamed form (expanded polystyrene or EPS) as hot cups, food clamshells or packaging materials, although non-expanded PS is also made into clear plastic food containers. Restaurants have until July to come up with replacements, e.g. paperboard or a plastic that is biodegradable or easier to recycle.

The Laguna Beach regulation follows on the heels of similar bans enacted recently in Santa Monica, Calabasas, and Malibu and applies to private food vendors as well as city-sponsored events and facilities. The Laguna and Santa Monica bans go farthest in that they include both EPS and non-expanded PS. More limited bans targeting just EPS and only at city facilities and events had been enacted previously in a number of municipalities in Orange County, including Aliso Viejo, Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Woods, Newport Beach, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano.

Restrictions on PS have been cropping up in Northern California, too, and Long Beach and Santa Barbara are presently discussing bans.

Why all the fuss about PS?

Polystyrene (PS) has earned itself a bad rep. Like all petroleum plastics, PS is non-biodegradable, so it literally sticks around for generations. The Laguna ban specifies all PS and “other non-recyclable plastics,” highlighting the lack of infrastructure in California for PS recycling.  PS is #6 in the chasing arrows plastic resin identification system. Susceptibility to contamination and its light weight make recycling of PS challenging and expensive. The California Department of Conservation has estimated a per ton recycling cost of over $3,000. Consequently, markets for recycling are scarce, so even when #6 items are accepted in curbside bins, most end up landfilled or as litter, according to Brian Early of Californians Against Waste (CAW).

In its foamed form, PS is a particular environmental hazard. It easily breaks apart into small fragments that blow around, creating litter that is near impossibly to pick up or contain. EPS ranks second among most common types of beach debris (per California’s Coastal Commission). Literally, mountains of PS pollute our coastal waters each year, sickening or killing birds, fish, and other creatures that mistake it for food.

PS Used in Food Service is Major Recycling Obstacle

Last July, the city of Los Angeles inaugurated the largest curbside attempt to recycle EPS. Despite an emerging market for recycling of clean, commercial packaging EPS into building materials, soiled food service items remain a major obstacle, says Neil Guglielmo of the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. Bestway Recycling, Inc. handles a large chunk of Los Angeles’ recycling effort: its CFO David Cho admits that “current technology has a very low tolerance for any contaminated EPS,” so there is no meaningful curbside recycling of EPS food containers yet. A sampling of major recyclers in Orange County confirmed the same.

According to CAW, 154,808 tons of food service PS is produced yearly in California alone. Disposal problems stemming from PS led the 1999-2000 Orange County Grand Jury to recommend that cities within the county take steps to reduce the sale of disposable plastics, including EPS.

Objections to PS bans voiced by food service businesses and the plastics industry include the cost of alternative materials (PS has been cheapest historically), concern that substitutes will not perform adequately, or the claim that the real problem is littering.  Certainly, both ban advocates and those opposed agree that littering is a systemic societal problem, hand-in-hand with a “use-it-once-and-toss-it” mentality. Nevertheless, environmental groups that have helped engineer the spread of PS bans, including CAW and Costa Mesa-based Earth Resource Foundation, contend that, as a disposable food container, PS is a problem material from the get-go.

Schools and Others Taking Steps to Curb EPS Use

Students in the surf class and Earth Resource Foundation environment club at Newport Harbor High School came to the same conclusion after participating in a beach cleanup at the Santa Ana River jetties in 2005. They successfully lobbied district officials to eliminate EPS cups and plates from their cafeteria. To make up for the higher price of paper products, the kids convinced the student body to stop littering the campus, thus reining in custodial care costs. The other 30 schools in the Newport-Mesa School District have since eliminated EPS cups, but, because of budgetary constraints, are still struggling with what to do about the foam plates.

Saddleback Valley Unified School District is taking a different tack to purge the stream of EPS refuse coming from cafeterias. The district’s provider of food service, Sodexho, Inc., has committed to switch from disposable foam trays to reusable plastic baskets throughout the district’s 26 elementary schools by June.

Some eco-conscious eateries have switched voluntarily to biodegradable to-go containers and claim they have done so at minimal expense . . . The Quiet Woman and Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria in Corona Del Mar to name a few.

Why I Stopped Using PS Containers

Personally, I forsake PS containers a few years back. I fancy myself a tea connoisseur and found that hot tea brewed in a foam cup just tastes lousy.

PS is a gigantic molecule formed by linking together strings of styrene in a process called polymerization. However, polymerization is never complete, so there is still some styrene on the loose in a foam cup. Indeed, scientific studies have demonstrated leaching of styrene and other chemicals into liquids from PS cups. Styrene is listed as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency on Cancer Research, and neurotoxic effects in exposed workers have been documented.

Do I know that styrene migration into my tea is what ruins the taste? No, but whatever it is, it does not belong there. Nor does PS pollution belong on our shores. So, I, for one , welcome the PS ban wagon to Orange County with open arms and hope that it comes soon to my city and school district.

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