SAN JOSE – After years of flirting with the idea, San Jose is poised to become the largest city in California, and perhaps the nation, to approve a ban on plastic foam food containers.
“Polystyrene in food will take the lead in gasoline,” said Councilman Sam Liccardo, who has pushed for the city council to vote on Tuesday. “Nobody will miss it in three years.”
Opponents, including restaurant and business groups and the plastics industry, are campaigning to prevent a ban in the state’s third largest city, fearing it could lead to broader restrictions nationwide. Critics are calling it a case of government rampage that will continue to weigh on companies in San Jose that are already grappling with a higher minimum wage and plastic bag ban in the city. They argue that foam take-out boxes can be recycled, and 65 California cities are now doing so.
“There’s a bit of frustration from these small business owners who feel that their concerns are falling into deaf ears,” said Javier Gonzalez, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Association.
But environmentalists and city officials say there is no market for plastic foam recycling and most of what is collected goes to landfill.
“There are many claims that this stuff is recyclable,” said Napp Fukuda, assistant director of environmental services in San Jose. “It is not.”
In addition, alternatives such as paper plates and aluminum foil are cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Liccardo said replacing a foam container and plastic bag with waxed paper reduced the cost of Lee’s sandwiches in his district. Replacing foam bins with alternative paper products in several restaurants also lowered the rate of garbage collection.
San Jose has been investigating a foam container ban for years. The city guides recently adopted several leading environmental measures to advance a “Green Vision” agenda. These include a recent ban on take-out plastic bags in city supermarkets and other retailers that went into effect last year.
The city council voted in February to phase out foam containers in 2014 for large companies and in 2015 for small companies. The vote also asked the city to conduct environmental assessments on a possible statewide phasing out of plastic foam, which could accelerate the introduction of similar bans in other cities and reduce competitive disadvantages for businesses in San Jose.
The plastic foam prohibition regulation and the approval of environmental studies are now being sent back to the council for approval.
“There are many cities in the area waiting for San Jose to act and not wanting to make the move until the big dog does,” Liccardo said.
The plastic foam – technically “expanded polystyrene” or EPS – is popularly known as Styrofoam. However, Dow Chemical Co., which is branded with this name, claims not to make food containers. City officials argue that the product is uniquely problematic and that alternatives either degrade naturally and faster, or don’t break apart as easily, making them easier to control.
San Jose restaurant owners have mixed views about the proposed city ordinance. Some, like Alice Liao, who runs the vegan restaurant The Loving Hut on Oakridge Mall, said her restaurant has used biodegradable food containers for years, although it costs more. She is proud that the city is taking steps to protect the environment.
“We care about the environment – this is our focus, bringing healthy, delicious food without tasting the environment or planet earth,” said Liao. “I just hope more people use this environmentally friendly material and then the cost will be lower and it will be better for the planet. It should be a lifestyle. “
However, Dan-Thy Nguyen, who runs the Pho Y Noodle House on Concourse Drive, said few practical substitutes for plastic foam are available to absorb the hot soup that is their restaurant’s specialty.
“Our core business is hot soup, and the foam cups are very good for that,” said Nguyen. “You have paper options, but I just don’t think it’s the same. Whatever they say goodbye to, whatever they decide, we are the ones who pay for it, not them. “
Nguyen added that San Jose should investigate the bugs, not the plastic foam.
“It’s not the material that’s the problem,” she said. “It’s the people. If you use it and are responsible for it and toss it in the trash, it shouldn’t be a problem. “
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
To reduce the amount of waste, San Jose is considering banning plastic foam food containers. Some quick facts: