Santa Barbara Banning Styrofoam?

With No State Law, Cities are Crafting Their Own Regulations

Following the lead of Carpinteria and 110 other jurisdictions throughout the state, Santa Barbara on Tuesday took its first steps toward banning Styrofoam in the city. The council voted 5-1 to direct the city’s Ordinance Committee to start drafting a new law that would restrict the use and distribution of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam containers, nonrecyclable materials made with petrochemicals that have a pesky and dangerous propensity to end up on beaches and in creeks.

Styrofoam — the brand name for EPS — makes up a fairly small percentage of the waste stream but presents a high risk to the environment, city staff told the council. It doesn’t biodegrade and instead breaks down into smaller pieces that persist indefinitely. Marine life often mistakes it for food. Since 2007, the California Legislature has tried and failed six times to pass a statewide ban, stymied by the well-lobbied American Chemical Society and Dart Container, the world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups.

A citywide survey found that 70 percent of the 375 food businesses in town have already voluntarily switched to using other types of to-go containers made with more environmentally friendly materials. The price difference for businesses owners is fairly negligible — alternative cups cost the same as their Styrofoam counterparts, while greener clamshells cost 2-4 cents more apiece.

Not all of those who’ve converted have been satisfied, however. Art Tracewell, a co-owner of the Blenders in the Grass smoothie chain, told the council his company’s switch from Styrofoam to plastic cups has been rough. Customers now routinely complain their smoothies melt too fast. Tracewell said he’s considering going back to Styrofoam, noting many types of plastic food containers are just as harmful to the environment.

As the Ordinance Committee gets underway drafting the ban, it will consider a few key questions — among others, what types of food businesses will be regulated (just restaurants, or food trucks and corner stores too?); whether exceptions will be made for meat trays and prepackaged foods sold in grocery stores; if retail outlets will be prevented from selling Styrofoam ice chests or cups; if exemptions may be granted to small businesses too adversely affected, and so on. An outreach campaign will also be launched.

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