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The end of Styrofoam takeout containers in California?

What will we eat things from without styrofoam?
What will we eat things from without styrofoam?
Josh Liba/Flickr

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If you’ve ever picked up takeout food at a restaurant, or taken home leftovers after a meal, you’ve certainly come across the ubiquitous polystyrene container.

They’ve been used for years by nearly all restaurants as a convenient way to take home food, keeping it hot or cold whatever the preference may be, and their durability makes them ideal tools. The polystyrene container, the symbol of takeout food, may soon be taken right out of California.

The bill, SB 568 also called the “Foam food containers ban,” has already passed the state senate and is headed to the state assembly. If it passes the there, it will continue to the governor's desk. The bill would prohibit restaurants, grocery stores and other vendors from using polystyrene containers starting in 2016, making California the first state in the country to ban their use. The bill exempts school districts and city and county jurisdictions if they implement programs to recycle 60 percent of their foam waste.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-27th District) is the author of the bill and says plastics are one of the number one contributors to ocean pollution. He said California's largest job enhancer is tourism and warned any damage to the Pacific could mean damage to the state's economy.

"We are putting our economic engine at risk, at the same time we have a lot of alternatives, it is time for California to move forward," he told KPCC's Patt Morrison.

Lowenthal said L.A. County already spends $18 million on beach cleanups a year. Long Beach county spends over $3 million. The senator said it's the perfect time to invest in alternatives, and pointed to successes in other counties already requiring them. “Restaurants in those cities and counties have not found this an inconvenience,” he said.

The bottom line he said, is “it's costly to the state to on the back end and to local governments and in the long term is has a devastating impact on the environment."

The arguments against polystyrene containers are both environmental — the non-biodegradable containers have filled up landfills for decades and are found littered across city streets everywhere — and also health-related because of concerns about toxic chemicals leaching from polystyrene into foods.

Lorraine Salazar is the co-owner of the Original Sal’s Mexican restaurant chain based out of Fresno, and disagrees with the senator. She said that while there are some applications for alternatives, she prefers the use of polystyrene containers.

“It's cost effective, it holds the integrity of the product, it's a matter of function where maybe the salad ... can be put into a plastics container or into a biodegradable container,” Salazar said.

Salazar pointed out biodegradable and compostable containers just don't hold up to things like the sauces she serves in her Mexican food restaurant. She stressed she cares about the environment, and said "this is a function of who's responsible for the litter. Is it the restaurant community that's responsible for the litter or the consumer that's responsible for the litter?"

Salazar believes environmentalists and business owners should work together and asked, "Why is the government trying to get a carve out of this bill and have this bill solely on the backs of the small business owner?"

WEIGH IN: Are you paying attention to the container used to take home your leftovers? Does is matter? How would you vote?


Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-27th District; author of SB 568 “Foam food containers ban”

Lorraine Salazar, co-owner of the Original Sal’s Mexican restaurant chain based out of Fresno