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Richmond Bans Plastic Foam Food Containers

Richmond bans plastic foam food containers

By Katherine Tam
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 10/21/2009 02:25:54 PM PDT

Updated: 10/21/2009 07:27:20 PM PDT


No more plastic foam food containers, Richmond says.

Starting July 1, restaurants and vendors must switch from serving food and drinks in plastic foam containers to biodegradable or compostable ones made out of paper, plant-based plastics or components such as sugar cane that break down easily. Aluminum is allowed because it can be recycled.

Richmond city leaders approved a ban on plastic foam containers Tuesday night and provided eight months for restaurants to use up any they have in stock before the law goes into effect.

Plastic foam containers -- commonly though incorrectly referred to as "Styrofoam" -- are popular among eateries because they are relatively inexpensive and keep food hot. But officials say plastic foam takes 500 years or more to decompose and can be toxic to people if they accidentally ingest it. It's also so light that it blows out of landfills and breaks into small pieces that end up in storm drains and waterways where marine life mistake it for food.

"It breaks into tiny pieces that look like fish eggs, and it's consumed by critters all over the watershed," said Linda Hunter, executive director of the Richmond-based Watershed Project. "It ends up collecting in their stomachs and they end up starving to death."

A biodegradable or compostable container costs up to 12 cents more than a foam container, said Jennifer Ly, the city employee who surveyed local companies for prices.

Add it up and the extra cost takes a toll on merchants already struggling in the recession, local business leaders said. Courtyard by Marriott estimates the switch will mean they'll spend 70 percent more, or $4,000, on food containers.

"People are eating out less, and when they do eat out, they're spending less," said Johnnise Downs, legislative director of the Sacramento-based California Restaurant Association. "This is the worst possible time to add yet another mandate on restaurateurs or customers."

But officials say businesses can pass the cost, which they consider nominal, on to consumers. Eighty percent of people surveyed at Richmond's Homefront Festival on Oct. 3 indicated they are willing to pay more, Ly said.

"There's been plenty of time for people to shift over. They haven't done it voluntarily," City Councilman Jeff Ritterman said. "What would we wait for?"

Richmond is not treading on new ground. Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville and Hercules are among the cities that already prohibit plastic foam containers. In July, state lawmakers tabled a bill that would have made California the first state in the country to prohibit such containers.

In San Francisco, where 4,500 restaurants serve food and drink, officials visited businesses after passing a plastic foam ban in June 2007 and found 95 percent are complying, said Alex Dmitriew, program coordinator for San Francisco. Of the two businesses that applied for a hardship waiver, one is now in compliance and the other is on its way, he added.

Richmond city leaders are considering a hardship waiver similar to San Francisco's. It could waive nonprofit groups, such as the Bay Area Rescue Mission, that serve food to the public using donated containers to keep costs down.

Officials will see if it's feasible for the city to buy bulk biodegradable and compostable containers at a cheaper rate than what merchants would pay individually. The city would then sell the items to merchants. The ban does not include straws, utensils, cup lids or coffee stirrers.

The City Council voted 6-1 to adopt the ban. Councilman Nat Bates, who cast the dissenting vote, worried about the extra cost to restaurants and nonprofit groups. The new law also puts Richmond businesses at a competitive disadvantage with restaurants in neighboring cities that are not required to use biodegradable or compostable containers, he said.

"But you don't care. It's not your money, it's somebody else's money," Bates told the council.

Officials want to implement a plastic foam ban in conjunction with launching a food waste collection and processing program. They plan to negotiate with the West Contra Costa Integrated Waste Management Board, which oversees trash and recycling in five cities and sets rates, to start a food waste program. If that fails, Richmond will consider withdrawing from the joint powers authority and seeking a competitive bid on its own or with cities that want to be part of an effort.

Katherine Tam covers Richmond. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/katherinetam.