In the meantime, expanded polystyrene is viewed on the local level as “low-hanging fruit” - the first step toward addressing other single-use plastics, according to several solid waste government staffers involved in the discussion.
“Styrofoam has been on people's (minds) for quite some time, for all the reasons we know,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman John Sawyer, who represents the city on the county waste management board.
Neither recyclable nor biodegradable, expanded polystyrene has been targeted by environmentalists for decades because of its ubiquity across the landscape and in marine environments. Berkeley first prohibited food packaging using polystyrene foam within its city limits back in 1988.
Citing both health and environmental concerns, Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Sonoma County also approved ordinances as early as 1989 prohibiting the use of polystyrene food and drink containers on local government premises.
Though cheap, lightweight and an excellent source of insulation, the material also is brittle and fragments easily into bits of microplastic that can be mistaken by wildlife for food - often after it has absorbed toxins from the surrounding environment, experts say. Since the material is mostly air, it's blown easily from place to place and hard to capture.
Fred Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, said workers struggle to contain the stuff at the company sorting facility in southwest Santa Rosa, where fragments of polystyrene foam battered by heavier recyclables in bins and recycling trucks end up as “fractured pebbles of polystyrene that the wind just picks up.”
“I watch the stuff just blow around and flutter around all of our facilities” and hide “in virtually every nook and cranny,” Stemmler said.
In addition, questions exist about the chemicals emitted and used in the production of polystyrene, a petroleum-based material, and whether they might leach into liquids and food stored in foam containers.
Polystyrene is made from chains of styrene, a substance identified by the National Institutes of Health as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Originally, the lightweight foam version was blown out using chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals linked to erosion of the earth's protective ozone layer.
Many food vendors have made the switch on their own to more environmentally friendly containers, though the cost for compostable or recyclable products is generally higher.
Arnold Arce, operations manager at Sebastopol's El Coronel Mexican Restaurant, said he switched out the eatery's polystyrene products earlier this year after learning the council would take up the ban, just “to get ahead of the curve.”
“It cost us a little bit more, but now there's so much diversity on those products that the price has gone down, so there's no excuse for not making that jump,” Arce said.
Les Kumar, owner of Sequoia Burger on Gravenstein Highway South just outside Sebastopol's city limits, said he abandoned polystyrene boxes a couple of years ago after enough customers asked.
“It's not helping me on my bottom line, but it made me feel better that I'm doing a little bit better as far as helping the environment and stopping all the Styrofoam from going into the trash,” Kumar said.
While 120 California cities and counties have now passed some kind of regulation on polystyrene foam food containers, most have done so in the past decade, including Ukiah, Fort Bragg and Mendocino County, all of which passed bans on foam food service ware in 2014.
Photos of the Pacific Garbage Patch and stories of whales, dolphins and sea turtles starving despite bellies full of plastic waste have raised awareness about the massive amounts of plastic waste that wind up in wild places on a daily basis amid surging annual plastic production. New studies indicate only 9 percent of the waste gets recycled.
A World Wildlife Fund-sponsored study released last week said humans ingest enough microplastics each week through water and other substances to equal the volume of a credit card.
“I think that people are becoming more and more aware of the problematic side effects of plastic use and especially single-use plastics - that it's a convenience, but it has some pretty serious consequences when it goes outside of the system that it's supposed to go in; and it's pretty easy for those things to escape into the river and the streams, and then drain into the ocean,” said Patrick Carter, who served as the executive director of county waste management until December, when he took a job as an analyst with the Petaluma Department of Public Works.
Carter said the Petaluma City Council, which is still working to tailor the countywide zero-waste resolution to its taste, may consider the polystyrene ban as early as August, though possibly this fall. Speaking as the county's former waste management chief, he said it seems as if the public and community leaders are increasingly mobilized by the alarming news coming with greater frequency about the amount of plastics in the oceans and elsewhere.
“People are trying to figure out what they can do about that, because I don't think anybody relishes the thought of these things really degrading our environment; so they're just trying to find their way,” Carter said. “This (the polystyrene ban) is maybe not the only way to solve that, but it's a piece of the puzzle.”
To read the entire Sebastopol ordinance go to sebastopol.municipal.code and search for “polystyerene.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.