Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
San Franciscans are clashing over whether to eliminate foam-based items like packing peanuts and egg cartons, or to recycle them.
Last month, the city of San Francisco approved the nation’s strictest ban on polystyrene to date. The plastic material, often confused with the trademarked brand Styrofoam, is commonly found in items such as foam coffee cups and clamshells. Although a 2007 ordinance already requires San Francisco food vendors to use recyclable to-go containers instead of polystyrene, the city’s new ban also prohibits products like packing peanuts, egg cartons, and meat trays.
At first glance, the decision to eliminate polystyrene across San Francisco seems like a no-brainer. The material can take centuries to decompose, clog landfills and waterways, and pose a threat to birds and marine life. It’s also quite expensive for cities like San Francisco to round up each and every discarded cup and clamshell—and even then, many items are contaminated with food debris, making them difficult to recycle.
Although the new ban on polystyrene will undoubtedly force some businesses to transition away from harmful plastics, it does offer a few accommodations. San Francisco grocers, for instance, will receive a six-month waiver to eliminate meat trays made with polystyrene. And some companies will be allowed to ship medications using polystyrene for the next few years.
The ban is an important step toward helping San Francisco achieve its goal of zero waste by 2020. But San Francisco isn’t the only city to recognize the excess of polystyrene clogging its waterways and landfills. The city of Berkeley banned foam food containers back in the 1980s, and since then, places like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis have also joined the anti-foam movement. Just last year, New York City contemplated a similar polystyrene ban, though it was eventually overturned by a state judge on the grounds that polystyrene was a recyclable material.
This same argument is now being re-hashed in San Francisco. Although the city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the new legislation, not all residents are pleased with the result. Organizations like California GoFoam fear that the ban poses a threat to local businesses. One of the major benefits of polystyrene, after all, is the fact that it’s cheap to purchase, thereby reducing up-front costs for vendors and consumers.
Others oppose the ban for logistical reasons. In a statement to San Francisco’s ABC 7 News, Walter Reiter, the deputy director and legal counsel for the Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Industry Alliance, said that the ban would “do nothing” to hinder polystyrene packaging from entering the city. But according to Conor Johnston, the Chief of Staff for San Francisco Supervisor London Breed, who introduced the ban, the city was up against various legal constraints. “Some things we don’t have the legal control to regulate,” Johnston says, “but there are a lot of [polystyrene] products that won’t come into San Francisco anymore, so [the ban] really does move the needle forward.”
Still others like Tim Shestek, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, whose membership includes plastic manufacturers, argue that the ban ignores the environmental benefits of polystyrene. “The city is looking at this through a very narrow lens,” Shestek says. “With plastics, you have the ability to transport more with less, and that results in less energy being used and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”
Breed’s office disagrees. “The only way to get to zero waste is to stop producing the stuff in the first place,” Johnston says. “We met with the EPS Industry Alliance multiple times. I don’t think they can fundamentally rebut the argument that the product they make is harmful to the environment and to the Bay Area.”
For the ban’s dissenters, there is still time before it is fully implemented in San Francisco. The legislation faces one more vote before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. After that, Mayor Ed Lee has ten days to veto it, approve it, or return it unsigned.
In the meantime, locals continue to war over whether polystyrene is better off recycled or eliminated altogether. Richard Sachleben, a member of the American Chemical Society’s expert panel, finds logic in both sides. “Even if [polystyrene] were properly handled, it can be challenging to recycle, but it can be done,” he tells CityLab. The biggest issue, Sachleben says, is that people simply aren’t disposing of their waste properly.
With less polystyrene being sold, there is certainly less chance for pollution. But the reality is that this issue is much bigger than any one city can handle. “The city of San Francisco is a tiny spec on the map of the greater Bay Area,” Sachleben says. “I don’t know if, in the long-term, these kinds of legislative approaches are going to impact the development of replacement materials.” It’s a question many San Franciscans are still struggling to answer.