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San Diego's Styrofoam Recycling Program Is Costly and Self-Defeating

Research shows that polystyrene ends up in the waste stream even if one places it in the recycling bin — harming the environment, marine life and humans. It's time the San Diego City Council join dozens of other communities in prohibiting the food ware.
Styrofoam container litter

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In the last 30 years, hundreds of California communities have come to adopt ordinances prohibiting restaurants from using expanded polystyrene food ware containers, popularly known as Styrofoam. San Diego, meanwhile, has adopted a flawed and costly alternative.

Styrofoam is not biodegradable and, once used, the container is discarded into the waste stream where it will remain indefinitely. This type of petroleum-based plastic is lightweight and brittle, and it pollutes our environment.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryThe Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego Chapter volunteers collected 12,575 pieces of expanded polystyrene from San Diego County beaches in 2017 alone. Unfortunately, the majority is blown into the ocean because it is light in weight and easily breaks into very small, uncollectible pieces. Once in the ocean, polystyrene is often mistaken as food by marine life and ingestion of the single-use plastics can become fatal.

The ocean is estimated to have by 2050 more plastics than fish by weight. University of California, Davis, performed a study in 2015 that found a quarter of all fish sampled in California grocery stores had trace amounts of plastics. Marine life and consumers are eating plastics!

Furthermore, polystyrene is made from styrene, a known animal carcinogen that was found “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program and “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer; it is also listed as a carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 in 2016.

No recycling plan for expanded polystyrene food ware has been successful in the long-term.

San Diego allows residents to place expanded polystyrene food ware containers in the curbside recycling bins. This is not a viable option. The city contracted HF&H Consultants as an objective third party group to determine if curb-side pickup of expanded polystyrene was feasible. The results from multiple communities that have adopted this approach are stark.

For instance, Los Angeles was interviewed and reported, “The Project Manager indicated that the EPS food service containers that are placed in curbside collection containers are often contaminated, and therefore not recycled.” Due to food contamination, cleaning costs and the products’ light weight, recyclers that are accepting these products are not separating and recycling expanded polystyrene food ware, according to the HF&H report.

In other words, the vast majority of expanded polystyrene is going into the waste stream even if one places it in the recycling bin.

The city of San Diego budgets $90,000 annually for recycling services of expanded polystyrene. In a viable recycling market, cities like San Diego are paid by recyclers for recycled products, not funded by tax payer dollars. Recycling is not an effective plan to reducing the waste created by expanded polystyrene food ware.

It is important not to add expanded polystyrene food ware to the household trash to be picked up and delivered to at capacity landfills. “In 1999, an estimated 300,000 tons of EPS was landfilled in California” costing California tax payers $30 million annually, according to the Equinox Project Center for Sustainable Energy. The San Diego City Council adopted a waste diversion plan of 75 percent waste by 2020, 90 percent by 2035 and 100 percent by 2040. To meet these goals and reduce costs, polystyrene food ware products will need to be removed from the waste stream.

Special interest groups representing restaurants overstate the financial impact these ordinances bring.

The first community to adopt an expanded polystyrene food ware ban was in 1989 in Berkeley. For 29 years, 112 other communities from Oakland to Encinitas have adopted ordinances with no reported restaurant bankruptcies. In case there is substantial hardship on a restaurant, ordinances have an opt-out clause that allow restaurants with a proven financial burden and exemption from the ordinances requirements. In many cases, it is viable to pass the additional costs of alternative products to the consumer.

The Equinox Project Center for Sustainable Energy reported that recycled, recyclable, and compostable food ware product prices increased on average between $0.01 to $0.08 cents per container, dependent on the container type. This minimal price difference can be absorbed by most customers.

In summary, expanded polystyrene food ware containers are damaging the environment, marine life and humans. The product cannot be recycled effectively, does not biodegrade and costs tax payers millions in litter cleanup and landfill annually.

The Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter strongly supports the city of San Diego should it join the 112 other communities in prohibiting the use of polystyrene food ware for the benefit of our environment, marine life, human health, and the general welfare of our community.

Michael Torti is executive committee chair of the Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter.

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