Editorial

California's failure to ban polystyrene means cities like Los Angeles need to step up

The Legislature’s recent rejection of a proposed statewide ban on plastic foam takeout containers (SB 705) was disappointing and surprising, considering that it happened hours before California lawmakers were excoriating President Trump for the environmental shortsightedness of pulling out of the Paris climate accord. Even more perplexing was that the same day the California Senate voted down the ban, it passed a bill that would require 100% of the state’s power to come from renewable sources by 2045.

Do legislators believe that only part of the environment is worth protecting? Or is the opposition from business groups just too strong to be denied?

We hope not, because even if polystyrene plastic foam isn’t an existential threat on par with climate change, it is still the source of tons of non-biodegradable microplastic accumulating in the world’s oceans and waterways — and in the stomachs of seabirds and fish who eat them.

The scourge of plastic foam (which many people refer to by the brand name “Styrofoam”) is also a drain on the public’s wallet. State and local governments spend millions of dollars each year to collect plastic foam litter from beaches, roadsides and storm drains. Virtually none of the foam cups, plates and clamshell containers that Americans use by the billions each year are recycled.

The environmental and economic costs have prompted 100 California cities and counties to ban food vendors and retailers from handing out polystyrene foam. The result is a patchwork of different local polystyrene restrictions. Santa Monica bans food service containers, while San Francisco’s polystyrene law extends to retail products like foam coolers. Los Angeles’ only attempt to rein in plastic foam were restrictions at city facilities that passed nearly a decade ago, and they don’t seem to be enforced.

Granted, a statewide ban is preferable to 100 different versions. But if such a law couldn’t pass in a year when California’s leaders were doubling as defenders of the global environment, it may take 100 more city bans to force legislators to take it seriously. So bring them on. L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield stood in support of SB 705 at a public rally last month. Now they should put their words into action and push the state’s largest city be the next one to say no to plastic foam.

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