By Janine Rands
Just a few years ago, diners were embarrassed to ask for restaurant leftovers. We used the line that our pet was eagerly awaiting a ‘doggie bag,’ and then we were given food in a Styrofoam container. To-go coffee often came in the same foam cup and most of us thought nothing of it. Thankfully, this story has changed for the cities of San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Arroyo Grande where these containers are now banned. Before 2015, every grocery and department store in these four cities sold Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) takeout containers and the majority of restaurants sent food home in these EPS containers, commonly known as Styrofoam.
SLO Foam Free (SFF), a local grassroots coalition from San Luis Obispo County, was formed in early 2014 with the goal of eliminating the sale and commercial use of EPS for restaurants, food vendors, grocery stores, retail locations, and as packaging materials at mailing centers. The City of San Luis Obispo was the first to adopt an ordinance in June of 2015 regulating the use and sale of EPS in restaurants and retail outlets. Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Arroyo Grande followed in 2016. During that time, SFF created an educational brochure and talked to people and businesses about the problems of Foam. SFF has been at every Earth Day and Eco Faire for the past three years, getting petitions signed and talking about why EPS needs to be banned.
Most people have never heard why Polystyrene is harmful. While the manufacturers will argue that it is completely safe, there are plenty more authorities who have proven otherwise. The chemical in EPS is Styrene, which is released into food and drinks and is a known carcinogen. The environmental issues are also significant. EPS ends up as litter in streams, rivers, and the ocean where it is passed up the food chain through fish. EPS never disintegrates entirely, is not biodegradable, and is never composted or recycled by any of our trash companies. Even when properly disposed, it merely becomes landfill.
Getting restaurants to replace EPS with compostable containers is not a complete ban if people can still purchase it. Retail sales to consumers lead to EPS cups, plates, and bowls being taken to picnics in parks and to beach parties – and then the bad part happens. Birds are attracted to food stuck to EPS containers and often mistake bits of EPS as food. This becomes a death omen to marine and wildlife. EPS is lightweight – it becomes airborne, floats, and breaks down into small particles which are quite impossible to pick up. It all adds to litter on our beaches.
Today, SLO Foam Free is proud that the City of San Luis Obispo is largely free of EPS in all retail stores, restaurants, and mailing centers. It takes a lot of people-power to eliminate something that has been with us for so long. Each city has a code enforcement department, but they don’t have the staff to monitor every business out there. That’s where citizens’ help is important – if EPS is being used in a city where there is an ordinance, please report it to that city’s Code Enforcement department.
We need one more city to pass a Polystyrene ordinance before the county can consider a ban that would be countywide. Which city will be the magic one – Grover Beach, Atascadero, or Paso Robles? This year, constituents returned and petitioned these three city councils again. Creating a new ordinance can be a long and tedious effort, but the energy sparked by our awakened awareness is certainly helping. If you’d like to be involved, please find us on facebook at SLO Foam Free.
Janine Rands is the Coordinator of SLO Foam Free.