Encinitas bans Styrofoam food containers

Despite a press conference late last week outside of City Hall, where the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association (CRA) and representatives from a few Encinitas restaurants urged the City Council to postpone the agenda item and find a different solution, there was overwhelming support at the Nov. 9 Council meeting for an ordinance that would ban food providers from using Styrofoam containers.

That support extended to the City Council, which voted unanimously (4-0 with Mayor Kristin Gaspar absent) to support the staff-recommended ordinance, which prohibits food providers from providing prepared food in disposable food service ware made of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam and prohibits vendors at city-managed concession booths or city-sponsored events from using Styrofoam.

The Council even took it a step further, dismissing a proposed ordinance component that would have made individuals bringing food to parks and beaches exempt from the ban.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to do this,” said Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer, who noted that Nov. 9 was one of the last Council meetings before her term is up. “I was here in the audience when (former Environmental Commissioner) Liz Taylor presented the environmental plan many years ago and was summarily dismissed very rudely by the Council then in place, it was one of the reasons I ran for City Council.

“I’m delighted to be able to (support this).”

In addition, the city took the Surfing Madonna Ocean Project up on its offer to contribute money toward a program to lessen the financial burden on affected restaurants.

“It’s nice to have a decision that’s easy,” Council member Catherine Blakespear said a day after being elected to be the city’s next Mayor starting Dec. 13. “The banning of Styrofoam disposable food containers is something that is clearly in line with what Encinitas residents want.

“I’m really grateful for the Surfing Madonna again coming forward.”

If the hour of comment during the public hearing was an indication, the Council was following the will of the people. Of the 28 speakers, 25 were in favor of the ordinance, a cross section that featured scientists and volunteers from several different ocean cleanup organizations, most notably Surfrider Foundation of San Diego.

“I know some feel it is not government’s role to regulate local businesses on these matters, but is it really government overreach to take action on a persistent, toxic form of waste?” Mitch Silverstein of Surfrider asked the Council.

Several speakers had visual aids, gathered pieces of Styrofoam from trips to the beach, and many said they would happily pay more for food if it would help restaurants be more environmentally conscious.

Encinitas resident Katie Benson said she doesn’t eat at restaurants that use Styrofoam and Kristen Buchanan, founder of GoodOnYa organic café, urged other businesses that the change could actually increase their profits.

“To me, what I think some of the businesses are missing out on is that the consumer wants the change,” Buchanan explained.

A fellow Encinitas restaurateur, Sam Amster, the owner of Garden State Bagels, however, was one of the speakers opposed to the ban, because of the negative impacts it would have on his business.

Amster and a handful of other local restaurant owners argue that not only is the extra cost a strain on their already-tight bottom lines, but there is a performance issue with the alternative containers, especially in terms of keeping coffee and soup hot or serving sushi which can stick to the bottom of the container.

They aren’t saying Styrofoam isn’t a problem when it ends up on the beaches and in the ocean, but they suggested an alternative plan to combat the problem, an impactful and comprehensive recycling program.

The Council was presented with the CRA’s plan, called Renew Encinitas, but chose to go for the full ban.

A study and outreach plan conducted by the Solana Center, which was presented at the Nov. 9 meeting, suggested that there are just five Encinitas businesses that report the switch will cause unbearable financial strain. The Council feels the assistance program can mitigate this burden.

“Our most valuable resource is our ocean and, as some of the speakers mentioned, we do have a city goal of going to zero waste so we need to do everything we can to get to that,” said Council member Mark Muir, who found out a day earlier that he had been re-elected. “I’m proud that the city (and the Solana Center) took the extra time and met with the restaurant owners because it’s our job to do our due diligence.”

That outreach continues with a Support for Businesses interactive workshop scheduled for Nov. 15 to help affected businesses make the transition to eco-friendly food containers. The ban requires a second reading and final Council vote, set for the Nov. 16 meeting, and will go into effect six months after that.