Restaurant operators in California are gearing up for what some have dubbed “Foam Fight 2009,” as law-makers consider legislation that could make California the first state to ban the use of polystyrene foam and nonrecyclable disposable foodservice containers.
Polystyrene foam is a plastic commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, one of the most inexpensive food container materials available. Expanded polystyrene can be used to make clear plastic containers.
Environmental activists, however, argue that such nonbiodegradable plastic is a leading cause of pollution in oceans and inland waterways and may have a toxic effect on both marine life and humans.
More than 30 mostly coastal cities and counties in California have enacted comprehensive or partial bans on the use of polystyrene products by restaurants, and another seven are considering similar restrictions. Outside California, bans are in place in the cities of Seattle and Portland, Ore., as well as Rahway, N.J.; Freeport, Maine; and Suffolk County, N.Y., according to California Clean Water Action.
New state legislation proposed Feb. 27 by Reps. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Petro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, would ban the use of polystyrene foam or expanded polystyrene foodservice products statewide, as well as prohibit the use of any nonrecyclable plastic food container or nonrecycled paper container.
Restaurant operators say they would love to use more “green” alternatives for disposable ware. The problem, however, is that such products are significantly more expensive than polystyrene-based options. A mandate to use green products, they say, would force restaurants to raise menu prices at a time when consumers are holding tight to their wallets—a dangerous move in today’s economy.
Many also contend that some compostable and biodegradeable products have a tendency to melt when exposed to hot foods, and they worry that they will be forced to pay more for recyclable products that will end up in landfills because consumers don’t recycle them.
“When we talk to our members, there’s the absolute desire to work with something environmentally friendly, but price and function are a problem,” said Matt Sutton, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association. “Restaurant owners are trying to find that magic spot where those three things come together: environment, cost and function. To the extent that such products become available, it will be only natural for them to use them.”
A statewide ban on polystyrene foam foodservice ware has been proposed in California in the past and failed. However, because so many local jurisdictions have adopted such bans, including the cities of Monterey and San Bruno just last month, observers say support has grown for state-level action.
Supporters say a statewide ban would create an immediate market for green disposables, which would potentially bring the cost of such products down.
Manufacturers of both polystyrene and recyclable and biodegradable products, however, disagree.
“In today’s environment, with so many competitors, there’s excess capacity [of green products],” said Malcolm Simmonds, senior vice president of foodservice sales and marketing for Solo Cup Co., based in Highland Park, Ill., which produces both polystyrene foam ware as well as a range of recyclable, compostable and bio-plastic options. “With contracting demand, we’ve got prices as low as they’re going to be.”
Nationally, demand is softening for Solo’s greener products, largely because of economic pressures, he said. Green alternatives typically are priced about 5 percent to 40 percent more than more affordable options.
“Our customer base is clearly showing less interest in paying a premium,” he said. “Their ability to pass on those costs and stay in business is in jeopardy.”
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