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Culver City moves to ban polystyrene food containers

Used styrofoam cups are seen on the streets on January 1, 2007 in Oakland, California. I
David Paul Morris/Getty Images
Used styrofoam cups are seen on the streets on January 1, 2007 in Oakland, California. I

Culver City has moved a step closer to banning single-use polystyrene containers and other utensils at restaurants.

The council voted unanimously to direct city staff to draft an ordinance that would prohibit restaurants, grocers and other retailers from using the kind of plastic foam cups, bowls and plates common in takeout food. It would also ban the use of polystyrene-based plastic utensils.

"There was some debate about the ban on polystyrene and how effective it would be and so on, and really I think last night all of those issues were resolved, so I think it's a very exciting moment in Culver City," Councilman Thomas Aujero Small told KPCC.

Polystyrene is a petroleum product that can be used to make hard plastics or "expanded" by joining together small beads to create the light, airy foam familiar as a packing material and also as a to-go box for food. Most people probably know it best because of a single brand name — Styrofoam — in the same way that Kleenex has come to be synonymous with facial tissue. But the material is used in a wide array of products.

Environmental advocates have argued that polystyrene contributes to pollution by clogging waterways and harming wildlife. Some have even suggested it may be carcinogenic.

"We do a lot of creek cleanups and we have seen so much polystyrene out there, and while it's not the only litter, we have really seen the impact of this particular product out there and the harmful effects on the environment," said Sandrine Cassidy, vice president of Ballona Creek Renaissance, a local nonprofit that helped shape the current proposal.

If the proposal eventually becomes law, Culver City would join 99 other municipalities that have passed similar ordinances, according to Craig Cadwallader, chair of the Surfrider Foundation's South Bay Chapter. A similar effort is also under way in Long Beach.

Cadwallader said a statewide ban would be preferable to working city by city, but he said his group was prepared to do just that if necessary. Cadwallader cited the statewide ban on plastic grocery bags approved by voters in November, noting that change came only after more than 150 cities had already passed local ordinances.

Culver City's plan is based on legislation crafted in Manhattan Beach, which Cadwallader said was one of the stronger ordinances on the books. It would specifically prohibit food service providers in the city from using single-use polystyrene foam food containers and polystyrene-based hard plastic ware. It would also prohibit retailers from selling foam containers and even coolers — the kind that people often pick up for a picnic or tailgate party.

The council stopped short, however, of banning retail stores from selling hard plastic ware, including cups, plates, cutlery and the like.

That exception disappointed Cadwallader, who said he was concerned about the health impacts of polystyrene on the retail market — not just at restaurants.

For instance, those red plastic cups used so often at parties and picnics can leach into beverages, and polystyrene may be linked to cancer, he said.

He and Cassidy cited a petition from a coalition of environmental organizations urging the Food and Drug Administration to ban styrene, a component of polystyrene. New data suggest styrene could be carcinogenic, the group argued.

The petition was joined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Improving Kids’ Environment, Center for Environmental Health, Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The FDA still officially maintains that polystyrene is safe for use in food containers.

Meanwhile, critics, including the California Grocers Association and the California Restaurant Association, have urged the city to focus on recycling efforts rather than an outright ban, noting the ban could hurt local businesses.

"Rather than banning a product that can easily be disposed of, in the proper receptacle, we support increased recycling and increased awareness of the need for recycling. Bans against food containers are an overreaction to a problem that can be solved in other ways. This ban represents yet another new cost increase for small businesses," the California Restaurant Association wrote in an emailed statement to KPCC.

A staff report estimates about 337 businesses could fall under the ban, including restaurants, food trucks, hotels and motels, catering firms, farmers' markets, convenience stores, grocery stores and other retailers.

In their responses to a survey from the city, several restaurant owners shared the estimated impact on their businesses.

Bradley Pham, owner of Ekkamai Thai, wrote that he anticipated alternative materials would cost $25,000 more per year. Jeff Paul, who owns the Outdoor Grill, put the figure at $40,000. A representative from Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que estimated a much more modest impact of $500.

A city staff report estimated the cost to businesses could run from $3,000 to $5,000 a year, citing an earlier study from Los Angeles County.

The proposal from the council includes a provision to set aside money on an outreach campaign educating restaurant owners on how to navigate the transition.

The ordinance still has to be drafted and will come up for at least two votes before it can be approved. After that, there will be a six-month phasing-in period, Small said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story specifically referenced a 2013 version of polystyrene legislation in Manhattan Beach, but Culver City's ordinance was modeled after an amended version.