A little background
By Kera Abraham [Last updated Oct. 1, 2012]
Most of us know expanded polystyrene, that ubiquitous fluffy packaging material, as styrofoam. Plastics industry folk are quick to clarify that Styrofoam is technically a brand-name blue foam used in building and craft industries, and not the expanded polystyrene used for disposable cups and containers. But "Styrofoam," like "Dumpster" and "Kleenex," has entered the public vernacular despite its imprecise meaning. We occasionally use the term in the generic sense so the average reader knows what we're talking about.
Polystyrene foam is so light, it tends to blow around. And it breaks easily into tiny white balls, but doesn’t biodegrade. Those two features combine to make it a persistent pollutant in rivers, beaches and the sea. It’s not feasible to recycle at this point, so it takes up a lot of landfill space. Marine animals like seabirds and turtles often mistake it for a snack; and when their guts are full of plastic, they have a hard time getting the nutrients they need from real food. Growing evidence suggests it’s poisoning people, too: Styrene leaches out of packaging and into food, builds up in human tissues, and is thought to be toxic to the nervous system.
The effort to phase out polystyrene foam take-out containers has been making the pages of the Weekly for years. In early 2008, concerned about the preponderance of foam trash on the shoreline, the regional Litter Abatement Task Force (co-chaired by Carmel-by-the-Sea Mayor Sue McCloud and Monterey Councilwoman Libby Downey) drafted a model ordinance banning expanded polystyrene take-out containers and sent it to all the local jurisdictions in the county.
The city of Carmel adopted it first, in spring 2008; then Pacific Grove, Monterey, Del Rey Oaks, Seaside, the unincorporated county, Salinas and Marina followed suit.
The pro and con camps are pretty predictable: Surfrider Foundation, Save Our Shores and the various Sustainable City groups have rallied to get local bans adopted, while the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division has paid local flaks to argue against them, and some local restaurant owners and chambers of commerce have raised concerns about the higher costs of eco-friendly substitutes.
That drama has been played out beyond Monterey County. Californians Against Waste lists 52 local polystyrene bans in the state, including the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles. The city-by-city effort could have been replaced if SB 568, a bill to ban take-out polystyrene statewide, had passed; but the bill failed in the last hours of the legislative sessions, both 2011 and 2012.
A ban, however, is only as effective as its enforcement. And here in Monterey County, not all affected restaurants have embraced the change. In fact, Weekly staffers began noticing, with increasing alarm, the sheer number of joints that continued to hand out polystyrene foam clamshells well after the grace period had ended.
So, we started jotting notes when we came across restaurants still using polystyrene foam, and then opened the list up to readers. The resulting spreadsheet is not comprehensive and it’s not scientific; in fact, we hope some of the places flagged as non-compliant have made the switch since we last checked. (We'll move those restaurants off the Slap list and onto the Green column.) We also don’t mind giving city and county code enforcement folk a hand in ID’ing who’s not playing. The first warning doesn’t even carry a fine.
Eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene foam are easy to find, from large suppliers like Sodexho and big-box stores to Passion Purveyors, a locally grown small biz.
So when you buy takeout or take your leftovers to go, please make a note of whether it came in illegit foam or legit eco-ware, and let us know.