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Environment Report: City Poised to End Its Styrofoam Recycling Program

The City Council on Tuesday is likely to end the curbside recycling program for Styrofoam — which is now expected to lose more a year than originally thought, nearly $130,000 a year.

Styrofoam container litter
Image via Shutterstock

San Diego looks ready to give up its money-losing plan to recycle plastic-foam food containers and packing material.

A few years ago, as other cities were banning the material, commonly called Styrofoam, the San Diego City Council decided it would recycle the stuff instead. It knew then it would likely lose money, at least $90,000 a year.

That may have been more palatable a few years ago because the city used to make several million dollars a year by selling other recyclables. City officials — lobbied hard by Dart Container Corporation, a plastics maker — also thought the loss was a small price to pay to make things easier on consumers and restaurant owners who preferred inexpensive, durable and insulating foam.

But times have changed.

Why? One word: plastics. The material has now become verboten in some circles. Plastic, including foam plastic, not only pollutes beaches but has begun to infiltrate the world. Tiny bits are falling from the sky, ending up in fish and making their way into the human body.

A new, more liberal City Council voted in January to ban Styrofoam food containers, though the ban exposed a possible limit on environmental activists’ ability to win support from low-income communities for certain policies.

At the same time, the once-profitable market for paper, metal and other plastics has collapsed as China turns away recyclables we sent there. Now, instead of Styrofoam being the sole money loser, it’s about to be one among many. In recent years, the city made $4 million by selling all kinds of recyclables. This year, it’s set to make only $600,000. In coming years, it expects to lose $3 million a year, according to city staff.

On Tuesday, the City Council will grapple with this new recycling reality. That will likely mean ending the curbside recycling program for Styrofoam alone — which is now expected to lose more a year than originally thought, nearly $130,000 a year.

The city will also pay companies to take other recyclables, which the companies previously paid the city for.

Councilman Scott Sherman argues that Styrofoam trash — from packaging or neighboring cities — will once again end up in the dump.

“The Styrofoam ban did get some members of the City Council great headlines, but their politically motivated ban resulted in 15 tons of easily recyclable material being thrown into the landfill instead,” he said in a statement. “This bad policy not only hurts the city’s zero waste goals and climate action plan, it is also bad for the environment.”

He noted that the plastics industry had initially offered to help the city handle Styrofoam recycling — but that was before the city’s ban went into effect.

“It is unfortunate that San Diego decided to ban polystyrene foam food service containers, even though they were being recycled as a part of the city’s curbside recycling program,” a spokesman for the D.C.-based American Chemistry Council said in a statement. “The ban is not equitable and harms the smallest restaurant operators who are serving working San Diego families.”

City staff, though, have said people weren’t really recycling much Styrofoam anyway. Just 15 of the 66,000 tons of curbside recycling material last year was plastic.

The Water Pipeline Road Show

For about the past quarter century, San Diego water officials have been involved in a delicate, expensive dance with officials from the Imperial Irrigation District, which owns rights to roughly a fifth of the Colorado River’s water. San Diego signed a long-term deal to buy some of that water but has to pay another agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to deliver that water to San Diego from the Arizona border through Riverside County. Now, the San Diego County Water Authority is thinking about building its own pipeline into Imperial County, an attempt to separate itself from Metropolitan, with which it has long feuded.

There are many obstacles. The project would cost several billion dollars, require tunneling, needs to lift water over mountains and run through tribal land, to name just a few. But one political obstacle is what officials in Imperial County would think.

Last week, one of the Water Authority’s top officials, Dan Denham, went out there to brief the irrigation district’s board and test the waters, so to speak.

The board members were surprisingly open to the idea, at least in public. Perhaps they think it’s so far off there’s no sense in getting worked up about it. Or perhaps they have a mutual foe in Metropolitan, which is trying to sideline a separate water-sharing deal between Imperial County and San Diego.

“So far, San Diego has been a better partner to us than anybody else,” one board member said during the meeting.

Still, the project is far, far away — decades perhaps, if ever.

“I’m here with eyes wide open that a lot of this is very hard to do,” Denham said.

Earlier this year, for instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom scaled back a separate water pipeline project in Northern California amid skepticism of, among others, the San Diego County Water Authority.

Things to Keep an Eye On

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

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