The Loma Prietan - September 2013

San Jose Bans the Plastic Take-out Box

Large Foam containers To Go; Wouldya’ Like Fries with That?

by Denny Doan

Yet another customer misuses a take-out container.  The foam food containers have been banned in San Jose and 60 other California cities. Photo: Marc Falardeau / Creative Commons / CC-BY-SA 2.0
Yet another customer misuses a take-out container. The foam food containers have been banned in San Jose and 60 other California cities. Photo: Marc Falardeau / Creative Commons / CC-BY-SA 2.0

For as long as I can remember, I’ve used those white “Styrofoam” food containers when I took food to go and when I couldn’t finish my food at a ‘sit in.’ Completely unaware of their carcinogenic effects, I’ve actually eaten pieces of them fused by high heat to my food. And until recently I never realized that they’re not recycled but are populating the sea and streets, needlessly taking up landfill space and further infecting everything they touch.

In a landmark decision last week, San Jose said “no” to expanded polystyrene take-out containers. (Expanded polystyrene, or EPS, is the correct term for the material we often call Styrofoam.) The comments to the San Jose City Council of several of the Chapter’s San Jose Cool Cities Team members and Chapter community outreach intern Marco Goitia helped persuade the council to vote 9-to-2 for the ban.

California now has 61 cities that have banned EPS, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Fremont … and now San Jose. Under San Jose’s ban, EPS will be phased out of larger restaurants by January 1, 2014, and out of the remaining restaurants in 2015.

The Ban Won’t be a Problem

Cheryl Wessling, acting spokeswoman for San Jose, says “Cities such as San Francisco and Palo Alto have already adopted this ordinance, and businesses have been able to switch over and comply with little trouble.” Food establishments have used EPS food containers because they believed it is the cheapest material, but switching from a 10-cent EPS clamshell to a two-cent paper plate and three-cent piece of foil saves five cents.  

“Bans on Styrofoam and plastic bags, which several cities and counties around the region have recently enacted, have had a huge impact on the amount of garbage that filters down local creeks into the bay and beyond,” says Save the Bay director David Lewis.

Supersize that Trash for Me

EPS does work well: it offers the best thermal insulation and protects vaccines and other pharmaceutical items and food such as fish and meat from sudden changes in temperature. On the other hand, EPS is also one of the most hazardous products both for the environment and for humans. Due to its nonbiodegradable and nearly nonreusable nature, EPS usually finds its way into our oceans.  The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the northern Pacific Ocean, contains six times as much weight of plastic than of plankton. There, it breaks into tiny pellets that birds and fish mistake for food, which eventually kills them.

Although in theory EPS can be recycled, the process is not very effective. Recycling facilities will only recycle polystyrene foam if it is clean, which means that residents must wash foam containers before recycling them.  Furthermore, its light weight make EPS a huge hassle and cost for centers to compact and transport. With handling costs of thousands of dollars per ton, recycling centers get little to no profit in recycling EPS. Recycling centers do not even accept food containers.  Even though EPS may make up only 0.01 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream by weight, its volume is a much greater problem.  

In addition the chemicals in EPS will also seep into the soil, causing problems for plants, insects and other wildlife.  EPS is also dangerous to humans: it is made from styrene, which is a lab-animal and human carcinogen. Styrene can migrate from polystyrene containers into food and beverages when heated or when in contact with fatty or acidic foods.

Denny Doan is the Chapter’s Community Outreach Intern.