Foam Food Container Ban Proposed in California

Foam Food Container Ban Proposed in California

A proposed strategy for reducing ocean litter calls for a statewide ban on foam food containers, fees for using plastic and paper bags, and making producers responsible for the collection and disposal of packaging.

The California Ocean Protection Council announced its plans (PDF) earlier this month and voted on actions for preventing and reducing waste that could end up in the ocean.

The state council also aims to change producer and consumer behavior with its three recommendations for reducing packaging waste: adopting extended producer responsibility, prohibiting certain items and charging fees for items that commonly become litter.

The concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) makes producers physically and/or financially responsible for the collection and disposal of the items they make. The council points to the 33 countries in which EPR programs operate, noting that in the first four years of Germany's EPR program, packaging waste dropped 14 percent. Such programs encourage material reduction, lightweighting, switching to recyclable materials and the redesign of products and packages.

The council has also proposed a statewide ban on polystyrene take-out food containers and a fee for single-use plastic and paper grocery bags. San Francisco and six California counties have so far banned the use of polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) food containers, and prohibitions on them exist in about another dozen cities.

San Francisco also prohibits the use of single-use plastic bags. The state council would first like to see a fee put in place in order to encourage the use of reusable bags. If that doesn't lead to less litter, the council feels other actions, including a ban, should be explored.

Retailers have implemented various bag strategies on their own, like Whole Foods Market cutting out plastic bags entirely, Marks & Spencer charging for plastic bags and IKEA charging for, and then getting rid of, plastic bags.

Lastly, the council recommends fees for items that lead to litter, but are not suitable for EPR or bans, such as cigarettes, the most common trash on beaches, according to the council.

Some of the council's plans are being opposed by a coalition of manufacturers and industry groups, including polystyrene makers and the American Chemistry Council. They are arguing against the proposed foam food container ban, saying that polystyrene is recyclable and that banning one of its uses would eliminate jobs in the state. The opposition is encouraging an expansion of recycling systems instead of a ban.

Although polystyrene, which carries the number 6 plastic symbol, is recyclable, the infrastructure for collecting and handing it is not as extensive as that for other types of plastic. In California, Los Angeles' recycling system takes it, but San Francisco does not. Some private recycling companies accept it, though some charge a fee for picking it up or for people to drop it off.

Plastic bags are also recyclable, but the council points out that fewer than 5 percent of the 19 billion grocery bags used in California each year get recycled.

One alternative to foam food containers is compostable materials, but those, too, requires the proper waste stream, like San Francisco's composting program, to effectively handle them.

The state council hopes its recommendations will guide future legislation and state policies. The council has focused its actions on reducing waste and litter at its source - producers and consumers - in order to prevent the creation of litter in the first place, and prevent the need for extensive cleanup efforts.