Five years ago, a proposed law banning the use of polystyrene containers to serve burgers, salads and other prepared foods failed in the state Assembly after heavy opposition from the plastics industry and the Chamber of Commerce. The environmental hazards posed by this form of plastic foam haven’t changed since then, but a lot of other things have.
For one thing, dozens more cities and counties have passed ordinances restricting local businesses’ use of containers made from polystyrene (often referred to colloquially, and incorrectly, as Styrofoam). There are about 100 such ordinances now, mostly in coastal communities concerned about the plastic trash piling up on their beaches and washing out to sea. Polystyrene containers are tough to clean up because they crumble into small particles that slip through screens and eventually into the ocean, where they remain for many years and become a dangerous part of the food chain.
The Legislature also showed in 2014 that it could overcome the opposition of industry groups to pass a statewide ban on another problematic source of litter: the single-use plastic bags handed out by California’s grocers and retailers by the billions every year. State voters ratified the ban in November despite the plastic bag industry’s efforts to defeat it.
Meanwhile, it’s growing harder to ignore the mounting evidence researchers have amassed about the threat plastic waste poses to the environment. A recent study, for example, found that 22 million pounds of plastic trash enters the Great Lakes each year.
Disposable plastic waste has gotten way out of hand, and recycling programs don’t appear to be solving the problem. The conditions are ripe for another attempt to enact a statewide restriction on polystyrene takeout containers. Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has written one, and lawmakers should pass it.
The Ocean Pollution Reduction Act of 2017 (SB 705) would ban stores and restaurants from using polystyrene containers for prepared food starting in 2020. The following year, the law would extend the ban to containers made from any type of plastic that can’t be recycled locally or composted. Polystyrene is used heavily in food service because it’s cheap, but very little of it is recycled or reused due to food contamination. In that respect it is a more problematic source of waste than single-use plastic bags, many of which at least do double duty picking up dog waste or lining a household trash can.
The proposed law would not apply to straws, lids, utensils (polystyrene also comes in hard plastic form) or foam packaging for unprepared foods such as meat or eggs, though these items are environmentally unfriendly as well. But it wisely would not stop cities or counties from passing tougher restrictions on these items. That means Culver City could keep a recently adopted polystyrene restriction that also requires food vendors to ask customers before giving out disposable cutlery.
The growing patchwork of local ordinances shows concern about plastic waste is high in California’s communities — and that the time is right for lawmakers to take the next logical step and adopt a statewide ban.