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Styrofoam Ban Exposes a Tension Between Democrats

City Council Democrats all voted to ban Styrofoam food containers Tuesday but in doing so exposed a possible limit on environmental activists’ ability to win support from low-income communities for certain policies.

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The San Diego City Council voted to ban Styrofoam food containers on Tuesday but in doing so exposed a possible limit on environmental activists’ ability to win support from low-income communities for certain policies.

The ban prevents restaurants and grocery stores from using plastic-foam food containers; bans anyone from bringing the material to city parks and beaches and bans restaurants from giving out any plastic straws or utensils, unless customers ask for them.

Over 100 other California cities have adopted similar rules, including Imperial Beach and Encinitas. The city’s plan faced last-minute questions from two new councilmembers who represent low-income communities. That’s because plastic foam, often called Styrofoam, is cheaper than other food packaging, meaning switching away from it could drive down small restaurants’ profits or drive up the cost of food.

The vote didn’t end up being close – the ban was approved 6-3 on party lines, with Democrats in a veto-proof supermajority. But Councilwomen Monica Montgomery and Vivian Moreno voted for the ban only after aligning themselves with concerns that businesses could close because of the ban.

By contrast, Jen Campbell, another newly elected Democratic councilwoman, said most of the businesses in her wealthier coastal district that includes Point Loma had already and voluntarily abandoned plastic foam.

Some business owners in low-income communities may only just be hearing about the ban, meaning that on top of the recent minimum wage increase, they might have to deal with rising packaging costs.

Montgomery, who represents Encanto and other parts of southeastern San Diego, said there had not been much attention paid to her constituents by environmental groups.

“I think there needs to be more outreach to my community from the environmental community,” Montgomery said.

The new city ordinance does allow waivers for businesses that bring in less than $500,000 a year or show the city they cannot realistically use another product. Council President Georgette Gomez, who represents City Heights, said she included those wiavers in the ban.

But Moreno, who represents Barrio Logan and San Ysidro, still worried small business owners, particularly Spanish-speaking ones, would have trouble hearing about or applying for the waivers.

She extracted commitments from city staffers and environmental groups, led by the Surfrider Foundation, that they would not lose sight of Spanish-speaking business. She talked about those commitments in both English and Spanish.

Councilman Chris Cate, one of the three Republicans to vote against the ban, said he worried about outreach to businesses owned by people who spoke other languages too.

“While I appreciate there will be some in Spanish, what about Tagalog, Vietnamese, Japanese?” he said.

The ban stems from growing concern about plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastic seems discrete and sturdy when you are holding it, but it breaks down into small chunks and then becomes an intractable pollution problem. It can either end up inside of marine animals who mistake it for food, or coagulate into giant flotillas of trash that are now circling the globe. Plastic foam is considered particularly bad because it easily blows out of reach, like the free single-use plastic bags that have already been banned across California.

Groups that volunteer to clean up beaches, including Surfrider and San Diego Coastkeeper, find more plastic debris than anything else, much of it plastic foam.

Councilman Scott Sherman said the problem is the people not the plastic, so the city should go after litterers instead of bans.

“The Styrofoam isn’t running down and throwing itself in the ocean,” he said.

Even after the ban takes effect, hard plastic food containers remain legal, a point opponents of the ban made.

Councilman Chris Ward led the push to ban plastic foam.

“The negative impacts of Styrofoam are permanent and threaten the health of San Diegans, wildlife and industries critical to our region,” he said in a statement after the measure passed. “The time has come for us to listen to community groups, nonprofits and businesses that have been advocating for this change for years and move away from Styrofoam and plastics in San Diego.”

The city has taken a somewhat scattered approach to plastic foam. A few years ago, the City Council approved a money-losing plan to recycle it.

On Tuesday, Dart Container Corporation, a plastics maker that’s spent over $200,000 in recent years donating to local political campaigns and lobbying, urged the city not to ban the plastic foam it makes but instead focus on recycling more of it. Dart’s representative, Nikki Buffa, an attorney at Latham & Watkins, in a presentation to the city council and an October letter outlined potential legal liabilities the city could face over the ban.

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that Buffa did not explicitly say that the Dart Container Corporation might sue the city when she highlighted the city’s potential legal liabilities if it approved the ban without an environmental study.

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