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L. A. County restricts use of foam food containers in county buildings and concessions

September 22, 2010 |  7:15 am

Foam cups litter the North Fork of the San Gabriel River, above Azusa. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to restrict the use of foam food containers at most county buildings and concessions.

The action against foam food containers, or expanded polystyrene containers, was seen as a victory for environmental groups but was protested by manufacturers who warned it could cost local jobs.

The vote came as officials study a far more sweeping ban of the material. The supervisors have asked for more information about possibly banning the containers – essentially plastic that is puffed up into a white, solid foam - in private restaurants and retail establishments in unincorporated areas of the county, over which they have jurisdiction.

 “We are hoping to provide leadership. This is a large county taking a very bold step,”  Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

 Foam food containers and cups have long been a target of environmental groups. The material does not easily degrade, can last hundreds of years, and can be eaten by birds and sea mammals, causing their deaths, according to the environmental group Heal the Bay, based in Santa Monica.

According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, 56,000 tons of foam food containers and packaging, equivalent to the volume of eight Empire State buildings, enter the California marketplace every year. Food containers are often easily blown into the storm drain system, according to the Department of Public Works.

 “Plastics in the ocean is a huge problem. It never breaks down. It just turns into smaller and smaller particles,” Angela Howe, managing attorney for the nonprofit ocean advocacy group Surfrider Foundation, based in San Clemente, said in an interview.

 Howe cited estimates by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that ingested ocean plastics kill 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals a year.

 Other California cities banning foam food containers include Alameda, Berkeley, Calabasas, Carmel, Emeryville, Fairfax, Hercules, Laguna Beach, Malibu, Marin, Monterey, Newport Beach, Oakland, Palo Alto, Richmond, San Bruno, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, according to Surfrider.

 Howe called the county’s action heartening, particularly because the California state Senate last month failed to approve legislation banning plastic grocery bags.

 But manufacturers of foam food containers opposed the county’s action Tuesday.

 “At our facility, we make nothing but polystyrene. And so it would affect our jobs. We have approximately 90 people in our facility, and, again, it’s not easy for us to retool because making other products such as with paper goods and stuff would take a whole new process,” Sheridan Ross, who works at Pactiv Corp. in La Mirada, told the supervisors.

 “Why single out polystyrene? I mean, you could ban every product out there,” said David Martinez, who works with Ross. “I feel like this product is being singled out, and it’s wrong.”

 In an interview after the vote, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas acknowledged the effect the ban would have on polystyrene makers.

 It "needs to be dealt with a lot of care and sensitivity. But I don’t believe that environmental protection issues are hostile to entrepreneurship,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I believe entrepreneurs can figure out how to innovate in whatever environment they find themselves in.”

 Ridley-Thomas said he believes county government will have some responsibility to assist manufacturers of foam food containers in any transition. 

 “I believe … we can come out with effective and progressive solutions that are job-producing … and environmentally friendly,” Ridley-Thomas said.

 According to a report by the Department of Public Works, phasing out foam food containers from county facilities will result in lower greenhouse emissions, reduced impact on the environment and fewer health problems, as the foam products have been found to release hazardous chemicals when they break down in the environment.

 The action Tuesday will restrict the purchase and use of foam food containers at county operations in 60 days, but it will realistically take some departments months or years to transition to other types of food containers.

 The changeover will be costly for at least one department. The Probation Department’s costs will rise from $176,000 a year for foam food containers to $370,000 a year for alternative products, the Department of Public Works said in its study. However, additional costs will be absorbed by contractors for the Department of Health Services, which runs the county’s public hospital system.

 The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county jail system, will probably be exempted from the ban. Sheriff’s officials rely on foam food packaging to deliver food to inmates because the lightweight containers cannot easily be made into weapons.

 As an alternative to the ban, sheriff’s officials have proposed a foam food packaging recycling system, which is feasible when relatively clean containers can be shipped to a recycling company in bulk.

 “The sheriff’s inmate facilities generate sufficient quantities of [foam] material and the sheriff has the resources and storage capabilities to facilitate a coordinated recycling effort,” the Department of Public Works said in its report.

 The Sheriff’s Department is in talks to give the used foam food containers to Dart Container Corp., which would then grind up the material at a plant in Corona, to be reused in products such as picture frames, according to a spokesman for the company.

A successful recycling effort by the Sheriff's Department could cause that program to expand to other county agencies. But a failure -- such as the inability of the vendor to handle the volume of discarded food containers -- could cause the Sheriff's Department to shelve the program and buy other types of disposable food containers, the Department of Public Works said.

 Tuesday’s motion also ordered the Department of Public Works and the county counsel’s office to report to the board in a year on the feasibility of restricting foam food containers among private restaurants and other retail establishments in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

 The vote Tuesday was 4-0, with Supervisor Michael Antonovich absent.

 -- Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration

Photo: Foam cups litter the North Fork of the San Gabriel River, above Azusa. Credit: Gary Friedman/ Los Angeles Times/2003

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