As politicians continue to push environmental policy at the state level, Long Beach yet again followed suit with the city council’s decision at its December 20 meeting to move forward with a ban on the use of expanded polystyrene, Styrofoam and other polystyrene products.
First District Councilmember Lena Gonzalez presented the original motion along with a brief history of past city efforts. As she pointed out, the idea of a Styrofoam ban is not new to Long Beach. In 2005, former 3rd District Councilmember Frank Colonna brought it to the council. Colonna cited estimates that Styrofoam remains in landfills for approximately 500 years and said that Long Beach waterways and sands are heavily littered with the material.
Gonzalez’s motion spurred debate among the councilmembers, mostly due to the lack of input from industries that would be most affected by the ban, namely restaurants. After much discussion and a slew of public comments, the council voted unanimously to approve Vice Mayor Rex Richardson’s substitute motion.
Like the original, the substitute motion included a request for the city attorney to draft an ordinance to ban Styrofoam use in the city, with the exception of the Long Beach Unified School District; a request for the city manager to work with the Long Beach Office of Sustainability, the Long Beach Sustainable City Commission and community stakeholders to develop a public education campaign, including a timeline for implementation, a website and a hotline; a request for the city manager to work with the Long Beach Economic Development Commission to come up with financial incentives for local businesses; and a request for the city manager to provide annual updates regarding the ban to the Long Beach City Council’s Environmental Committee.
However, Richardson’s substitute motion added that prior to drafting the ordinance, the environmental committee must conduct public outreach with community stakeholders and provide feedback to the city attorney. Also included in the new motion was an extension to 180 days before the ordinance comes back to the council.
Some restaurant owners have already taken it upon themselves to do away with the use of Styrofoam products, including Luis Navarro, owner of Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, which has two locations in Long Beach. Navarro explained that his restaurants have been Styrofoam-free for about six years.
“We absorbed the cost because there is a substantial cost difference to leave Styrofoam. It has just become so cheap,” Navarro said. “But I think it’s a necessary need to discontinue it. If it’s something that doesn’t go away, then we should not be using it.”
In a letter to the mayor and councilmembers, Matt Sutton of the California Restaurant Association, expressed his organization’s opposition to the ban. Sutton explained that in areas such as San Francisco where similar bans are in effect, the amount of litter did not decrease but rather changed forms to other products such as paper.
“For a segment of the economy that is characterized by razor-thin profit margins of around 4% on the dollar in a good economy, cost always has to be a consideration of a product, in addition to the functional value,” Sutton said. “Schools, hospitals, nursing homes, nonprofit food programs, delis and family-owned restaurants are among the many institutions that rely upon polystyrene foam for its excellent insulation at an economical price.”
Others have raised the question of what will happen to smaller mom and pop restaurants if they are forced to pay more for non-Styrofoam containers. However, Navarro argues that Lola’s falls into this category, and while it’s certainly more expensive, his business is not failing. He added that the environment is too important to abuse with Styrofoam.
“I really believe that people are going to realize that it’s just a necessary change that needs to happen – an adaptation that is going to happen,” Navarro said. “I think it’s a good thing for the city to take the bull by the horns and say, ‘Hey, this is the direction that we’re going to go.’”
According to the Surfrider Foundation, which has a local chapter in Long Beach that spoke in support of the ban, around 100 cities in California already have some form of ban on Styrofoam products. The organization cited U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics that show only about 3.8% of Styrofoam is recycled. Additionally, the group said that in 2009 the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment proposed styrene be listed as a known human carcinogen.
“The Long Beach chapter is super involved,” Navarro said. “They do a lot of beach cleanups. They are aware, and they really do make an effort. And they were really kind of the first ones to ignite us to think about the change years ago. I think that having a group around that is doing that is huge.”