San Diego Styrofoam Ban: Who Can Get a Styrofoam Waiver?

With San Diego’s new ban on Styrofoam food stalls, pool toys and more set to go into effect April 1, the City is scrambling to educate affected businesses, clarify complex rules, and consider emergency waiver requests. .

Among those requests is one from a coalition of local grocery stores asking for a two-year delay for raw meat foam packaging. The coalition says compliance with the new law will dramatically increase local meat prices and reduce availability.

The long-awaited ban, which has been delayed for three years due to litigation with restaurants and container companies, covers foam egg cartons, takeaway food containers, meat stalls, refrigerators, ice boxes, dock floats and mooring buoys.

As of April 1, retail stores cannot sell these products, and residents cannot use them in city parks or on beaches. An exception is prepared foods that are packaged elsewhere and then sold in San Diego stores, such as soups sold in Styrofoam containers.

The ban, which the city council finally approved in December, also requires restaurants and food delivery services to stop handing out straws and plastic utensils unless customers ask for them. But the city recently clarified that restaurants could still have self-service areas with straws and utensils.

City officials say they recently sent newsletters to 9,000 local businesses. The mail program has been translated into Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

The city also hosted a public forum at Linda Vista on March 2 and hosted an online webinar on March 7. At both events, businesses asked questions, mainly about how the rules work and how to apply for cancellation.

City officials also rely on environmental groups, trade associations and community groups to spread word of the ban. The dedicated website has many more details.

The website also has printed posters that businesses can hang on driveway windows or place on tables to explain the ban to customers and employees.

San Diego joins over 130 other California cities with a polystyrene ban, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Imperial Beach. Oceanside and Coronado are the only local coastal cities not affected by the ban.

The Los Angeles ban will also go into effect next month. San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland already have bans in place.

Proponents of the ban say foam products are poisoning marine life and harming the health of people who eat seafood because the foam is not biodegradable and constantly breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, products made from chemical-grade polystyrene find their way into local waterways and are easily consumed by wildlife after they break down into much smaller pieces.

Nearly all national and regional restaurant chains have long since stopped using polystyrene in response to lobbying from environmental groups and backlash from customers concerned that polystyrene is non-biodegradable.

But many taco stores, pizzerias, convenience stores, and other small businesses continue to use Styrofoam products to save money.

To mitigate the impact on these businesses, San Diego’s proposed ban includes delays and relief from hardship.

Businesses with an annual gross income of less than $500,000 do not need to comply with the ban for the first year after it goes into effect, giving them until April 2024. No disclaimer is required for this exception.

There are also exceptions for businesses that either can’t find a reasonable alternative to polystyrene or have entered into long-term contracts for non-conforming products before the new city law went into effect.

Businesses seeking these exemptions must apply for and obtain an exemption, which may be subject to special conditions.

Jennifer Ott, the city’s recycling specialist who is leading enforcement of the ban, said officials will adopt an education-focused approach, with enforcement and penalties only following warnings and attempts to force businesses to comply.

“Enforcement will be largely based on complaints,” Ott said during a March 7 webinar. “Our goal is to inform businesses about this regulation and how to comply with it.”

Ott said fines would be a last resort. She said initial site visits after filing a complaint would focus on providing technical assistance to the business and possibly issuing a written warning. Fines won’t start until the third or fourth visit, she said.

The opt-out request from local grocers says they support the environmental goals of the new law and intend to eventually comply with it. But grocers, represented by the California Grocers Association, say they need more time.

“Operational change, procurement processes, and the implementation of change of this magnitude by grocers and manufacturers are complex and not feasible at this timescale and scale,” grocers say.

They estimate that 80 percent of raw meat products sold at local grocery stores use packaging that does not comply with the city’s new law.

They say compliance will cost millions because it will require changes both at local stores, where they say about half of the meat is packaged, and at suppliers, where the other half is located.

They say that until now, grocers have considered packaging alternatives not strong enough or effective enough to keep air and moisture out of raw meat, which is especially vulnerable to spoilage and contamination.

The city said it will conduct a thorough review of the grocers’ request for a waiver, including exploring possible alternative products used by similar businesses. The city may ask grocers for more information, officials said.

The San Diego ban was originally approved in 2019, but it was delayed due to litigation filed by restaurants and foam container companies to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the ban’s potential environmental impact.

This analysis concluded that the environmental benefits of a foam ban far outweighed the slight increase in truck pollution caused by the switch from foam to denser paper products.

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