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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

Santa Cruz set to ban Styrofoam take-out food containers

December 2007

Cold Stone's Rafik

Rafik Abelian dishes out ice cream in paper cups in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo by Debbie Bulger.

by Debbie Bulger

Despite the chasing arrow logo and the number on the bottom of polystyrene cups and takeout containers, this material is almost impossible to recycle due to food contamination and other factors. If we are lucky, Styrofoam ends up in the landfill. If it is mistaken for food by a bird, it could be a death sentence.

With the unanimous approval of the Public Works Commission on November 19, the proposed Santa Cruz ordinance to ban polystyrene take-out containers is headed for the City Council on January 22. The Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Save Our Shores, The Ocean Conservancy, Ecology Action, and other environmental organizations support the ban.

The City of Capitola adopted a similar ordinance last year and is moving slowly with enforcement. Santa Cruz County is also preparing a comparable ordinance which is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors in either December or January. Representatives from around the Monterey Bay area have been meeting to deal with the problem of polystyrene containers. When all local jurisdictions adopt such ordinances, the result will be a level playing field for all food vendors. San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica, Oakland, and other California cities have all banned polystyrene takeout containers.

For over 18 years the City of Santa Cruz has been encouraging restaurant owners to switch to environmentally-acceptable food containers. As far back as 1989 the City established a policy to eliminate polystyrene foam packaging for food. For 18 years compliance has been voluntary. In 2008 businesses must not use polystyrene takeout containers if they wish to qualify as a “Clean Ocean Business.”

The advantages of not using polystyrene are many. Since polystyrene cannot be recycled practically, its use reduces the life of the landfill, produces non-biodegradable litter, and harms wildlife. Workers who manufacture polystyrene are exposed to eye, skin, and respiratory irritation and headaches. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. Food containers made of Styrofoam should not be heated in a microwave since toxic chemicals can leach into the food they hold.

Fortunately new choices in food containers abound. Besides cardboard containers there are now take-out boxes made from sugarcane stalk, cornstarch, and rice and potato starch. If such containers end up as litter, they eventually break down. What's more, they’re compostable.

Rafik Abelian, owner of the Coldstone Creamery in downtown Santa Cruz, did not wait for the ordinance. He has almost completed his store’s switch to paper ice cream cups. Since the creamery is a franchise, his inquiries to the Arizona-based corporation hastened its transition to paper ice cream cups for the entire company.


Too often, polystyrene cups become litter like this cup photographed on Mission Street in Santa Cruz.
Photo by Debbie Bulger.

When Chris Moran, Waste Reduction Manager for the City of Santa Cruz, notified Rafik of the City's intention to ban polystyrene take-out containers, Rafik was using 3500-4000 Styrofoam cups a week. Conservatively estimated, that’s over 180,000 containers/year! If one multiplies that by the 1850 stores in the corporation, the impact of the company's decision to switch to paper is mind boggling. At press time the corporate office was examining options for sustainable smoothie containers.

Rafik likes the new paper containers much better than the old polystyrene ones. “They are much more colorful and attractive,” he enthuses. “But more important, it’s the right thing to do.”

How to help

• Contact the Santa Cruz City Council and ask them to ban polystyrene take-out containers: .

• Bring your own cup or container. While paper cups and sugarcane containers are far better than Styrofoam, the best alternative is to bring a reusable container from home.

• Thank businesses that do not use polystyrene take-out containers. Patronize businesses that demonstrate that they care about the environment.

• Let your county supervisor know that you support an ordinance to ban polystyrene take-out containers.

• If your city does not yet have such an ordinance, contact your council member.

Plastic is forever

Every single bit of plastic ever made is still around. That’s because no organisms, no bacteria break down this non-natural product. Some plastic ends up in landfills, some is reused, and some finds its way into the gutter, then down the storm drain and into our creeks, rivers, the Bay, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

When it does, birds and animals beware.

Because plastic does not biodegrade, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces by sunlight and other forces. Sea birds often mistake the particles for food. Greenpeace reports finding a dead turtle in Hawaii with over 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach and intestines.

There is an area of plastic in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the state of Texas. It just swirls in place because of the pattern of the ocean currents. Even tiny jelly fish-like creatures in the ocean ingest plastic particles they mistake for plankton. In parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton 6 to 1.

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