Council Bans Styrofoam, Plastic, though Impacts are Unclear
By Olin Ericksen
June 15 -- Uncertain about the impact on pollution and profits, the City Council Tuesday night banned the use of Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic containers for businesses in Santa Monica.
While not a “magic bullet,” City officials hope other cities, such as Los Angeles, will follow suit and help reduce beach and ocean pollution.
“If we do this tonight, I think the rest of Los Angeles will follow to the tremendous benefit of Santa Monica Bay,” said Council member Kevin McKeown, who sponsored a broader motion than staff had recommended to include non-recyclable plastics along with Styrofoam.
The impact of these products on the environment is unique, said Dean Kubani, the City’s acting environmental program manager, and their long-term effects are dramatic.
“This is one of the most prominent forms of pollution on Santa Monica beaches,” Kubani said. “It persists in the environment for decades,” he said, noting that it harms both the environment and animals, such as fish and birds, which swallow the non-recyclable foam.
After listening to arguments by officials from food, packaging, and chemical industry groups who said more public outreach and investments in drainage and containment of the trash may have a greater impact than a product ban, the council sided with staff and environmental groups.
“We feel more (than public outreach) needs to be done,” Kubani said.
Heal the Bay Director Mark Gold noted that Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic containers accounted for 37 percent of all trash the non-profit collected during nearly 250 beach clean-ups.
But the ban will not come without a price. After a similar ban was enacted in Malibu, local businesses reported the switch cost them nearly $30,000.
Santa Monica City officials readily admitted they had a hard time gauging the ban’s impact on local merchants.
Estimates based on surveys of between 150 and 200 businesses, found that switching to more recyclable packaging products, such as paper, plastic and tinfoil, would cost businesses anywhere from nothing to nearly 300 percent more each month.
The merchants hardest hit by the ban would be mostly fast-food restaurants, which could pay as much as $180 more per month.
Those estimates, however, are uncertain.
Anecdotal evidence presented by Council member Bobby Shriver indicated that at least one local McDonald’s owner suggested the fast food restaurant may have to spend as much as $8,000 a year make the switch.
Because businesses and Styrofoam makers were reluctant to release financial information, Kubani said he “would not be in a position to argue with” claims that the ban could have a deeper impact.
Indeed, some local business -- such as Fritto Misto on Colorado Avenue, which notes that a third of its business is take-out -- said the ban could impact sales because hot food may not retain heat during a customer’s trip home.
“If quality of product is not what they want, we are worried about sales,” said Melinda Amaya, Fritto Misto’s general manager.
At least one eatery owner, who goes by the name Janabai, had a different take in the ban’s impact on Euphoria, the restaurant she runs on Main Street.
Janabai has always used biodegradable products for take out, which she estimates accounts for nearly 80 percent of Euphoria’s business. In fact, she believes the restaurant is more popular because it is environmentally friendly.
“We’ve passed on the value to our consumers,” she said. “From a high-dollar tourist prospective, we need to take a lead or someone else will.”
In a nod to local businesses, the City will provide a hardship exemption for businesses that are most heavily impacted, although there was no mention of how that would work.
While the ban’s economic impacts are uncertain, it is also unclear what, if any, effect it will have on pollution on Santa Monica beaches.
“This will not clean up the beach,” said Shriver, who argued greater regional cooperation on the issue is needed.
City officials are unclear how much trash would be reduced, because much of the foam waste on Santa Monica beaches comes from Los Angeles and surrounding communities, which are not considering a ban.
In fact, City officials note that 92 percent of local foam pollution comes from runoff that streams into the bay through storm drains from around the county.
Due to its uncertain impacts, the council directed staff to review the
ordinance in two years to evaluate its success and level of compliance.
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