California could become the first state to effectively ban the use of polystyrene foam takeout containers under a bill the state Assembly will review later this summer.
The Senate passed the legislation, Senate Bill 568, last week. It is now scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Observers expect the legislation to be heard before the summer recess in mid-July so the Assembly can vote on it in August. Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) introduced the measure.
If adopted as is, the bill would prohibit all restaurants and food vendors from dispensing their products in polystyrene foam containers beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
The bill’s supporters argue that polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam, often ends up in the ocean where it breaks down and can harm marine life. The California Department of Transportation has said that polystyrene accounts for about 15 percent of storm drain litter. Researchers also say polystyrene foam is the second most common type of beach debris.
The California Restaurant Association (CRA) has opposed the state bill, as well as similar versions that have been adopted by close to 50 local jurisdictions, mostly along the California coastline.
Matt Sutton, the CRA’s senior legislative director, contends that such bans may reduce one component of the litter stream, but they are often replaced by another form of garbage.
“The focus on foam is misguided,” he said.
Styrofoam is prohibited in San Francisco restaurants, but research has shown that the amount of litter did not go down after banning polystyrene foam there. “It was simply replaced by other materials,” Sutton said.
While many restaurant operators are voluntarily moving away from the use of foam, he said, they have also found that alternative products don’t function as well in terms of keeping hot food hot, cold food cold, and preventing food from falling through the bottom of the container. “And polystyrene foam costs two to three times less” then alternative materials, he said.
Rather than prohibiting the use of one material, the CRA has advocated a more comprehensive approach to food packaging overall, Sutton said.
“Foam is being recycled, though maybe not at a fast enough clip for proponents of the ban,” Sutton said. “We need a broader look at food packaging and a recognition that it is recyclable and there is a secondary market for it.”
California lawmakers have considered statewide action on the use of polystyrene over the past several years but such legislation has failed.
This year, however, Lowenthal has reportedly pitched the bill as a job creator, arguing that it could draw the manufacturers of alternative packaging products to California.