Sebastopol bans Styrofoam food containers amid growing alarm about single-use plastics
Sebastopol is forging ahead with a ban on polystyrene foam food and beverage containers, taking the lead in Sonoma County amid a nationwide concern about single-use plastics and a mounting global crisis over consumer waste.
The new ordinance, the first of its kind in Sonoma County, prohibits the sale or use of disposable cups, burger boxes, clamshell containers and even cheap ice chests made of expanded polystyrene in Sebastopol come Nov. 19. The regulation is based on a model intended for adoption around the county.
Among numerous other provisions, the wide-ranging measure also requires vendors to ditch single-use containers, bowls, plates, cups, straws, stirrers, utensils, napkins and other products of any material when viable compostable or recyclable alternatives are commercially available. Customers who want to-go condiments, cup lids, cutlery or straws will have to ask for them, as well.
The ordinance encourages food providers to credit customers 25 cents for bringing their own reusable to-go containers and charge a takeout fee up to 10 cents to defray the costs associated with cups, lids, straws or utensils.
The ordinance also governs packaging for prepared foods. Blown polystyrene egg cartons and food and meat trays are exempt.
The Sebastopol City Council adopted the model ordinance in March but delayed its enforcement to allow restaurants and vendors to use up any remaining foam stock they might have on hand and to give the rest of Sonoma County time to catch up.
But Vice Mayor Patrick Slayter, a member of Sebastopol's recently created zero waste subcommittee, said the council saw no point in waiting to act, given the well-known environmental harm caused by blown polystyrene, often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam. The only other local entity poised to act is Windsor, which reportedly will consider the ordinance in August.
“It was something that comes up in community conversations with some regularity because there are so many other communities way ahead of us around the state,” Slayter said. “So it became obvious, honestly, that this was something that was well-vetted around the state from a legal perspective, and it was also something that our community has been asking for.”
The city's ordinance is based on a model regulation the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency Board presented in December to the Board of Supervisors and the county's nine cities as part of a movement intended to reduce waste by more than 90 percent.
It also reflects a larger effort to eliminate single-use plastics in the waste stream in Europe and the United States due to expanding awareness of the pervasiveness of plastic waste in every corner of the planet and its ingestion by every type of animal life-form.
Two states, Maryland and Maine, recently passed laws banning the use of expanded polystyrene foam food containers.
A similar effort in California failed to muster sufficient votes last year.
Supporters doubled down this year, however, with a broader approach aimed at phasing out nonreusable, nonrecyclable, noncompostable packaging of all kinds and requiring the top 10 most littered single-use plastic products be reusable, recyclable or compostable after 2030.
Matching bills, Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 1080, would accomplish both aims. Ironically, though they go well beyond simply banning polystyrene foam, they have earned more votes in their houses of origin, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste.
It's a more logical approach, Murray said, because communities or companies that have eliminated polystyrene foam have turned to other materials that are still nonrecyclable, nonreusable, nonbiodegradable, and do nothing to reduce the waste stream. Specifically requiring the use of compostable, recyclable materials addresses the problem straight on, he said.
Legislation by State Sen. Ben Allen, author of SB-54, signed by the governor last year already requires food facilities in state-owned buildings to use only truly recyclable or compostable packaging materials.
The new legislation would expand on that.
The powerful, trillion-dollar-plus plastics industry is opposed to the matching bills.
Lawmakers still want to work out some wrinkles in the bills, even those who “voted for it ... to keep the conversation going,” said Eric Potashner, vice president of strategic affairs for Recology, the waste management company that serves much of Sonoma County.
“The plastics industry is going to spend a lot of time on trying to defeat these bills in the next month or two,” Potashner said. “All of that said, I think we have better-than-a-fighting chance of getting this done this year.”