SF’s proposed Styrofoam ban picks up support amid industry opposition

San Francisco’s proposed Styrofoam ban is picking up support from key city commissions.

In 2007, San Francisco joined a host of other cities that had banned polystyrene foam takeout containers in restaurants.

Almost a decade later, Board of Supervisors President London Breed has proposed to expand the ban to the sale of polystyrene foam products and packaging in San Francisco, similar to laws on the books in other jurisdictions like Palo Alto and Seattle. The measure is co-sponsored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the 2007 ban.

Polystyrene foams takes thousands of years to decompose, fills up landfills and can contaminate fish when it ends up in the ocean. It is also blamed in relation to litter.

In recent weeks, Breed’s proposal has gained the unanimous support of the Small Business Commission, and Tuesday the Commission on the Environment followed suit. The proposal could help The City reach its goal of sending zero waste to the landfill by the end of 2020.

“This is about zero waste. It’s about environmental health. It’s about the health of the oceans as well as the people and the planet at large,” Debbie Raphael, director for the Department of the Environment, told the Commission on the Environment on Tuesday.

Breed has addressed impacts on small businesses and other industries in the legislation, such as allowing three-year waivers for pharmacies and drug companies that ship medications. Also Tuesday, Breed agreed to modify the proposal to give grocers an additional six months from the date the law takes effect — likely Jan. 1, 2017 — to address concerns over transitioning away from polystyrene foam meat trays.

The legislation would authorize the director of the Department of the Environment to issue waivers as well as blanket exemptions for specific packaging.

Jack Macy, a zero waste coordinator for the Department of the Environment, said the ban in 2007 has met with success with a “virtually 100 percent compliance with the 5,000 food establishments across The City.”

“If we’ve successfully stopped restaurants from using it, we shouldn’t have stores selling it to the public and going out and having picnics in the parks or on the beach using Styrofoam plates and cups that get blown into the ocean,” Macy said.

Environment Commissioner Johanna Wald praised the proposal. “I feel this legislation has been a long time coming,” she said. “I am thrilled that it is finally here. It will undoubtedly make a huge difference.”

But the industry, amid threats of a lawsuit, has cast doubt on the impact.

Attorney Trenton Norris, representing the EPS (expanded polystyrene) Alliance, argued the product is recyclable, and since the law doesn’t impact deliveries into The City, it won’t address the landfill concerns. He also argued the material is not a litter problem in San Francisco.

“The vast majority — we don’t have a percentage on it, but it’s easily more than 90 percent of the Styrofoam that ends up in landfills in San Francisco — comes into The City from somewhere else in the country,” Norris said. “San Francisco is not addressing that in any way whatsoever with this particular ordinance.”

Macy said the industry’s arguments “aren’t very strong.” He said that while Styrofoam is technically recyclable, it isn’t allowed in Recology’s curbside recycling program because “the nature of this stuff is that it breaks apart very easily into small pieces.”

“It’s just a nightmare to deal with. It’s very hard to recover. It’s cost-prohibitive,” Macy said.

The proposal is strongly supported by environmental groups.

“It is a travesty the amount of Styrofoam that is floating everywhere around this planet,” said Russell Long, founder and president of Sustainable San Francisco. “So whatever we can do to limit and restrict it is a huge environmental victory.”

The legislation requires approval by the Board of Supervisors to become law.

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