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Sonoma County supervisors eye ban on polystyrene containers

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is the latest local government to back a proposed ban on use of foam food containers.

Supervisors signaled their support for the plan in adopting a zero waste ordinance Tuesday, setting up a September vote on the overall ban on single-use polystyrene foam* products.

Supervisors were supposed to vote on the ordinance at the start of the year, but put it on hold because of the impact it would have on businesses relying on takeout business during the shutdown.

“We are still in COVID and we are a takeout restaurant economy,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the county on the board of Zero Waste Sonoma, the county’s waste management agency. “Still it is time to think carefully about how to reduce our solid waste.”

If passed next month, the ban would take effect in January, giving local businesses between September and January to replace the polystyrene products with alternatives.

The county’s adoption of the ban would extend the ordinance beyond the cities that have adopted it, to the county’s unincorporated communities.

The zero waste resolution the board approved on Tuesday establishes a goal of reaching zero waste by 2030. It outlines 36 initiatives that local governments can utilize to reduce waste, said Zero Waste Sonoma Executive Director Leslie Lukacs.

“With the right mix of community resources, education and technical support for residents and businesses, we can be optimistic about our ability to achieve zero waste and minimize the consequences of polystyrene foam escaping into our landfills and littering our rivers and roadsides,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors.

During its discussion, the board also authorized the County Administrator’s Office to establish an agreement with Zero Waste Sonoma, the agency spearheading the polystyrene ban effort, to implement the ordinance.

The ordinance looks to prohibit food and beverage providers like restaurants, food trucks and convenience stores from using single-use polystyrene products — think polystyrene containers, plates and cups. Stores also will be required to stop selling those products.

Zero Waste Sonoma and the county are encouraging businesses to instead use more recyclable and biodegradable products.

“There’s proliferation of plastics that make their way into the environment,” said Lukacs. “We’re seeing it in waterways, we’re seeing it on the side of the road. We really have to stop that at the source.”

Polystyrene is particularly challenging because it easily absorbs residue from whatever food it is holding and becomes contaminated; meaning it cannot be recycle, Lukacs said.

She added that polystyrene’s lightweight nature and the ease with which it breaks into small pieces adds additional complications.

So far eight municipalities including Santa Rosa and Sebastopol have adopted similar ordinances, Lukacs said.

Zero Waste Board is represented by appointees from the nine cities, as well as the county.

Of the 10 jurisdictions making up the board, Rohnert Park is the only city that has not yet taken up the polystyrene ban, according to Lukacs.

“I’m grateful to the community and the other cities that are far ahead of us,” said Gorin.

Business owners who think that the polystyrene ban would be a hardship will be able to apply for an exemption, Lukacs said.

So far, reaction to the ban has been positive in the communities where it is in effect, according to Lukacs and Gorin.

“Most, if not all, of the cities have embraced this very enthusiastically so there’s not a lot of controversy in the city,” said Gorin.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

*This article has been corrected. A previous version misidentified polystyrene as Styrofoam, which is the trademarked name of an insulation product.

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