Styrofoam’s days in Long Beach restaurants are numbered after the city council voted Tuesday night to implement a phased-in ban of the product that is often used to package nearly everything from tacos to pumpkin pie.
The vote was part of year’s-long process that has spanned many iterations of the city council and will place a ban on the product being used in restaurants or in other retail settings where ready-to-eat food is sold within the city, including food trucks. Long Beach will join a list of over 100 other cities in the state that regulate the use of the substance to package food.
The first entities that will have to comply with the ban are city-owned and sanctioned events with large restaurants—defined as those having over 101 seats—having to follow suit within nine months of the ordinance’s passage. Smaller restaurants (less than 100 seats) would be subject to the ban at a later date, currently proposed as 18 months from the adoption date, but compliance could be subject to a study that will measure the impacts of similar bans in other cities.
Originally the motion stood to impact smaller businesses sooner with “large” restaurants being defined as those with 31 or more seats. Changing the threshold to over 100 seats will result in about 1,000 Long Beach restaurants having more time to comply with the proposed ban.
Items like styrofoam ice chests, bean bag chairs containing polystyrene beads, as well as bags of the beads currently sold at arts and crafts stores would also be subject to the ban. The council’s vote will initiate a separate study to identify if it's feasible for the city to install a number of “Big Belly”-style trash receptacles along key corridors of the city to better hold debris and prevent overflows that result in trash ending up on city streets.
“This is not intended to beat anybody up, this is intended to work with them, to help them comply,” said Diko Melkonian, Long Beach’s Bureau Manager of Environmental Services. “Ultimately the goal would be to reduce litter on our streets and beaches, to prevent that pollution from getting to our ocean habitats, reduce the public’s contact with harmful chemicals and promote the use of reusable items over single-use items.”
The item, authored by First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, first came to the council in December 2016 and was spurred by research from a local environmental group that found millions of broken pieces of polystyrene products mixed into the city’s beach sand.
Polystyrene, more commonly referred to as styrofoam, is credited with polluting beaches but also contributing to the risk of disease due to its compounds containing likely cancer-causing chemicals that can leach into water supplies and bioaccumulate in fish and other animals fished for human consumption.
Katie Allen, executive director at Algalita Marine Research and Education, the firm that conducted the study, said that styrofoam takeout containers and like materials often break down into smaller pieces where they can intermix with the local environment and enter water ecosystems and food supplies. The group’s study found some four million pieces of styrofoam products on just a two-mile stretch of the Long Beach coastline.
Allen said that the material, while recyclable, is often not recycled at the rates that it could be due to its low resale value. She remarked that on a trip to a recycling center that her group witnessed the staff paying a customer to take away recycled polystyrene “to meet their quota” of diverting a certain amount of the material.
“We’re working with plastics that literally are designed to be used once yet are designed to last forever,” Allen said. “We’ve been very irresponsible with this material when we should have feared the consequences of plastics from the very beginning. We were not responsible with a persistent and polluting material that now is ubiquitous in nature.”
It has also become ubiquitous in the food service industry, especially with the proliferation of delivery apps that have led many in this parking-impacted city to stay home and order in their favorite dishes, a good amount of which are packaged in substances that stand to be banned by this new ordinance.
Local restaurant owners joined industry and union representatives to oppose the ban, even with its phased-in approach for the smallest, and arguably most vulnerable businesses, claiming that the endgame for such a ban would be higher prices for consumers and potentially “mom and pop” shops shuttering their doors.
“Bans are essentially mandated cost increases that often hit the smallest mom and pop family owned restaurants in your community,” said Chris Duggan of the California Restaurant Association. “The mandated costs are real and you have seen 120 individual restaurants have written letters to you explaining this. These are not big restaurants, they are the economic backbone of your community.”
Duggan said the ban would only add to the cumulative impacts of the rising costs of labor—the city, like most of the state, recently voted to raise the minimum wage—as well as the costs of food and healthcare. He claimed that a recent survey revealed that the ban could result in price increases ranging from 54 percent up to nearly 150 percent.
Janet Garcia, an employee at Gabriel’s Burgers on Pacific Avenue and 20th Street, echoed Duggan’s concerns that the price of the ban would be passed on to consumers, some of whom may not be able to afford it.
“If you guys approve this ban we will definitely be forced to raise our prices and that’s something we can’t do,” Garcia said through an interpreter. “Because there are many people that don’t have the money or barely have the money to pay for their own food stuffs.”
Local chef Paul Buchanan, owner and operator of Primal Alchemy, sided with the notion that the hard-to-recycle material should be done away with as there are other, more environmentally friendly materials that can be used to package food.
“I have run my foodservice business without it for the past eight years or more and have focused on using compostable vehicles such as natural palm leaf plates, bagasse or a variety of paper products,” Buchanan said. “I fully support this proposal and believe it is the right step for our city.”
The council’s vote to approve the ban includes some overtures that seek to lessen the burden on area businesses including the development of a cooperative purchasing program that could help reduce the price of replacement materials for food packaging. It will also allow businesses to exhaust their current stock of polystyrene containers.
A proposal from Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo that would’ve reimbursed business license fees to those who voluntarily complied with the ban before mandated ultimately was not accepted.
While the council deliberated for nearly four hours, with multiple iterations of the proposed ordinance being discussed, it was not lost on the council that something had to be done. A number of variations of a ban had been discussed since 2005 but ultimately no hard action was taken on the matter until last night with the council voting unanimously to ban styrofoam in Long Beach.
“When I was in elementary school my teachers would tell me that styrofoam was bad and I’m now 34-years-old,” said Vice Mayor Rex Richardson near the end of the council’s discussion. “Styrofoam is bad, it never goes away, it pollutes our fish. We’re at the mouth of a river, we’re the home of the Aquarium of the Pacific, we have to be on the right side of this issue.”