Styrofoam ban may expand its reach
The City of Santa Cruz’s “Environmentally Acceptable Food Packaging Ordinance” (EAFPO), passed in January 2008, boiled down to 15 “findings and intents,” 14 “definitions,” and one major enemy: polystyrene foam.
Polystyrene foam is found in many forms: the cup that breaks into a million pieces; food containers that get tossed aside; and the seemingly endless fluorescent sea of squeaky peanuts that fill delivery packages. The material has found its way into our everyday culture, usually as a means for convenience.
The city council determined that banning some uses of the material would help Santa Cruz with its “duty to protect its natural environment, its economy, and the health of its citizens,” according to the document. They also concluded that by banning the use of polystyrene foam, and various other non-compostable, non-biodegradable, non-recyclable food packaging items, the operational lifespan of area landfills would be maximized and the environmental costs of managing waste material would be lower.
The decision drew on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) findings that styrene (a chemical compound described in June 2011 by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen”) can leach from polystyrene foam containers into food and drinks, causing both short and long-term adverse effects. The foam is equally as dangerous to wildlife, specifically birds and other marine creatures that mistake it for food. As for environmental impacts, it is not biodegradable and is produced using petroleum.
The city council passed the ordinance on Jan. 22, 2008, prohibiting food providers in the City of Santa Cruz from providing prepared food in any disposable food container made from polystyrene foam. The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and every other city in the county soon followed suit, passing ordinances that closely resembled the city ordinance.
However, the threats of polystyrene haven’t been completely extinguished, which is why the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is considering an expansion of the ban to include a variety polystyrene products sold across Santa Cruz County. The county’s Public Works department held a public information meeting on March 6 to discuss a proposed ordinance that would “restrict the sale of polystyrene foam products in the county,” according to a Feb. 27 county press release.
Supervisor Neal Coonerty feels that Santa Cruz took the ever-important “first step,” back in 2008, and is continuing to prioritize its responsibility to the local environment.
“I think the fact that we are a beach community highlights the issue, because we see a lot of the waste coming up onto the shore, and when they do beach cleanups it still is one of the main [types of] waste that is around,” says Coonerty.
According to Save Our Shores Executive Director Laura Kasa, the local environmental group has actually found more Styrofoam on Santa Cruz beaches in the years since 2008 than before the ordinance was enacted.
“Back in 2008 we were picking up about 56 pieces of Styrofoam at each cleanup,” she says. “Now, for the past three years, it's been an average of 74 pieces per cleanup, and we can't identify where those pieces are coming from. Is it from Styrofoam coolers? If they're [Styrofoam] peanuts we can track and identify that usually, but it could also be from plates, cups, or bowls.”
Coonerty attributes the proposed extension of the ban to this continued presence of the material, but adds that even this “second step” won’t guarantee the complete disappearance of Styrofoam in Santa Cruz.
“There is still a significant amount [of Styrofoam], which is why we are taking this second step,” he says. ”The first didn't completely take care of the whole package, and [even with] this one there still will be polystyrene that can come in from packages. We don't have the ability or authority to ban those items coming from out of the state or country.”
The ban currently applies only to restaurant take-out containers. The expansion will prevent the sale of such products commercially, such as Styrofoam cups, bowls, plates, beach toys and coolers—exactly the types of items that Kasa says Save Our Shores has been finding during their clean-ups. It will not apply to food products that are produced and packaged outside of the county, nor will it prohibit the material’s use “for insulation or floatation purposes [when it is] encased by a more durable material.”
“There are several problems with Styrofoam: it's plastic, so it's made from petroleum, [which] there's a scarcity of in this world,” she says. ”Why we're using petroleum to make disposable one-time use products makes no sense to us. But in addition, since it is made of chemicals and toxins, when that gets out into the environment—especially the ocean—it doesn't biodegrade. It starts to break into the different pieces and the chemicals leak out into the water.”
One of the expansion’s most vocal proponents has been Rachel Spencer, a Cabrillo College Board of Trustee's member and resident of Davenport, where she says cleaning up the beaches is a constant and long-term battle for community members.
“Those of us that live in Davenport, as I do, spend a lot of time cleaning up the beaches,” says Spencer. “We have no beach services up here, so everybody who lives up here is constantly doing beach cleanups ... It isn't a once a year event. It's constant, and it's a little discouraging that people would come to a beautiful beach and leave just inexplicable amounts of trash.”
While Spencer is happy that the county is considering expanding the ban, she feels that more needs to be done to address the other forms of pollution typically found on the beach.
Kasa agrees, especially considering that two of the biggest beach pollution problems prevail: cigarette butts and plastic bags.
“We have picked up 220,000 cigarette butts in five years. It's the No.1 item we pick up at every cleanup,” says Kasa. “The other item is plastic bags, which we've collected 28,000 of in the five years that we have been tracking our data, so we're also moving to get plastic bags banned in the county.”
Save Our Shores can hope to find fewer discarded plastic bags as of Tuesday, March 20, when the Santa Cruz County Single-Use Bag Reduction Ordinance takes effect across the county’s unincorporated areas. The ban will make it illegal for retail businesses to hand out plastic bags (restaurants are exempt, for now), and imposed a $.10 fee on paper bags.
As for the cigarette butt issue, Save Our Shores is making sure businesses have receptacles outside of their establishments, and has thrown around the idea of figuring out a “redemption value system” that would create an incentive for people to collect discarded butts.
Coonerty believes that the expansion is a step toward addressing larger concerns with the environment, and says it will be voted upon “pretty soon.”
“Sometimes we have to take incremental steps—they're important and in this case they all add up to having a cleaner environment, beaches, and having less destructive items in our local ecology,” he says.
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