In a few weeks, Petaluma’s City Council will consider joining more than 120 other California counties and municipalities in banning expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), also known by the brand name “Styrofoam,” a nasty petroleum-based, non-biodegradable substance which lasts forever as toxic trash, negatively impacting our food supply, wildlife, marine life and the environment.
Aside from being a possible human carcinogen, polystyrene is too costly to recycle and often breaks down into small pieces, blowing down the street and into our rivers and oceans where it is eaten by fish and marine mammals who mistake it for food. Use of Styrofoam products has brought us some measure of convenience over the years, but its continued use is not sustainable. Banning it is the right thing to do.
The proposed city law would sensibly allow local businesses to use up their existing supplies of Styrofoam products, including to-go boxes, plates and coffee cups before directing them to use alternative paper or compostable products beginning May 1, 2020. Retailers would be prohibited from selling Styrofoam packing “peanuts,” coolers and pool toys.
According to Patrick Carter, the city staffer (firstname.lastname@example.org) who drafted the proposed ordinance, many local businesses have already stopped using polystyrene products in favor of compostable products or reusable plastic ware. Because larger companies, like Target, have had to comply with similar laws in other cities, they would have no trouble adapting to Petaluma’s law.
For most Petalumans, the city council’s anticipated approval of a polystyrene ban is a no-brainer and is likely to generate reactions like, “It’s about time.”
Others may think the city should focus solely on essential services like public safety and street maintenance but, considering that public waste disposal is something that all cities do, finding effective ways to eliminate hazardous materials from the waste stream is just common sense.
When the city set out to draft its new law, it began with a model ordinance promoted by an intergovernmental “joint powers” consortium composed of the County of Sonoma and its nine cities. Formerly known as the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, the group recently rebranded itself as Zero Waste Sonoma, a name that clearly defines its long range mission.
The agency’s model ordinance, which was adopted in full by the City of Sebastopol earlier this year, includes one section requiring the use of compostable or recyclable food service ware by food and beverage businesses in order to eliminate the waste generated by single-use food service products clogging up the landfill.
It’s a laudable goal and one which deserves serious consideration and public support. However, because Petaluma officials have not done adequate outreach to local businesses that provide such products to their customers, Carter says he’s recommending the city adopt the more straightforward polystyrene ban now and circle back at a later date to adopt regulations on the use of disposable food service ware, a far more complicated issue.
By example, many disposable coffee cups are lined with polylactic acid, a bioplastic derived from corn. Though technically compostable, the process for composting such products is longer and more costly, perhaps one reason why they are not accepted at Waste Management’s Redwood Landfill facility near Novato which processes all of Petaluma’s waste.
The same goes for “compostable” plastic knives and forks. To produce truly organic compost necessary for organic farming certification, which the Redwood Landfill specializes in, producers must avoid contaminating the product with any plastic waste. As such, economically composting such products locally remains a challenge.
The State Legislature is attempting to resolve the issue of too much single-use plastic waste by enacting AB1080, the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act, which would impose a comprehensive regulatory scheme on producers, retailers, and wholesalers of single-use packaging and single-use products. But adoption of such a law is at least a year away and its full implementation at least 10 years out.
In the meantime, anyone can bring their own container when picking up to-go food, or their own coffee cup when buying coffee. That’s according to Lisa Moore, a Petaluma native and employee of Recology, the agency under contract to haul Petaluma’s waste.
Moore says she is happy to forgo a little convenience if it helps win the larger battle for a sustainable global environment.
If we ever hope to clean up the “plastic soup” mess we’ve made of the Pacific Ocean, we’d do well to follow her example.
(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at email@example.com.)