San Francisco enacts extensive ban on all things foam

Consumers won't be able to buy polystyrene kiddie floats, egg cartons or coolers in San Francisco after supervisors approved what environmentalists are calling the most comprehensive ban in the country on the cheap insulating foam.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Those ubiquitous stacks of plastic foam coffee cups at family picnics and church suppers are going the way of the plastic bag in San Francisco.

Local officials approved a measure last month that bans all uses of plastic foam, from food packaging to disposable coolers.

Set to take effect next year, the ordinance creates the most extensive ban on polystyrene foam in the country among large cities and counties. It is an extension of a 2007 ban on take-out food containers made of the foam, commonly but incorrectly called styrofoam.


Environmentalists praised the action, while industry groups countered that the foam can be recycled and cautioned that the law could cost local jobs.

Banning foam creates more problems than it solves, according to trade group California GoFoam, which opposes a statewide ban.

“Small businesses can’t afford the alternatives, which in most cases lead to greater waste,” according to a post on the group’s website. “Foam, on the other hand, is recyclable and avoids the negative financial impact on the community and the environment.”

Foam food containers and cups have long been a target of environmental groups. Known as expanded polystyrene, the material — essentially plastic puffed into a white, rigid foam — can take hundreds of years to degrade, according to the environmental group Heal the Bay, based in Santa Monica.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates show that ingested ocean plastics kill 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals a year, according to the nonprofit ocean advocacy group Surfrider Foundation.

In California, more than 70 cities, including San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Monica, have restrictions on plastic foam container use.


In 2010, Los Angeles County supervisors voted to restrict foam food containers from most county offices and concessions. The ban covers restaurants, catering trucks, beach concessions, golf courses and even food delivery to senior citizens.

The Los Angeles Unified School District stopped using plastic foam trays in 2012, swapping them out for recyclable paper trays at all district schools.

New York City tried to ban single-use plastic foam products last year, but that was overturned by a state judge who said the foam containers could be recycled.

Like single-use plastic grocery bags, polystyrene foam is the latest plastic to be targeted by cities in California. San Francisco outlawed the bags in 2007 and Los Angeles followed suit in 2014.


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