Say goodbye to plastic straws, cups and those little stirrers for your coffee.
The Santa Monica City Council recently expanded its ban on plastic food containers to include all single-use plastics offered by restaurants, cafés and other businesses serving prepared food. Restaurants will have until January to find suppliers of products that are considered marine degradable, meaning they break down quickly in oceans, lakes or streams.
The only problem is many believe, and at least one city official admits, marine degradable products are not widely available or reliable for food service. Restauraunteurs are now left scratching their heads, worried and confused about how they will continue to operate once the ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019.
"In consultation with food packaging experts and food packaging manufacturers it has been made clear to us that 'marine degradable' food packaging does not exist because it cannot serve the role of keeping food safe and retaining its quality while still being able to degrade in marine environments," said representatives from the California Grocers Association (CGA), a non-profit, statewide trade association that represents over 300 retail members operating more than 6,000 food stores in California and Nevada, and approximately 150 grocery supplier companies.
"It is important, to note that even simple products, such as paper and bagasse, contain different coatings and glues which prohibit it from achieving 'marine degradable' status."
(Eating lunch in downtown will be different in 2019 after the City of Santa Monica voted this month to ban plastic food containers and utensils.)
The expansion reinforces the city's long-standing commitment to protecting the environment and the Santa Monica Bay, which includes a goal to achieve zero waste through diversion, composting, and recycling by 2030. Santa Monica was one of the first cities to ban polystyrene food service containers in 2007 and single-use plastic bags in 2011.
Failing to recycle properly, littering and gaps in the trash collection system have led to over 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris making its way into our oceans worldwide, with some 260,000 tons floating on the surface. Straws, stirrers, take-out containers and lids are among the top 10 most common items found on the beach, according to the 2018 Ocean Conservancy Report.
The number of straws collected during Heal the Bay's local beach cleanups has increased over 43 percent since 2014.
Plastics break down, releasing toxins contributing to the acidification of the ocean. It's believed that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.
"As a beach city, single-use plastics pose serious problems for the natural environment, including polluting the ocean and clogging landfills," said Santa Monica's Chief Sustainability Officer Dean Kubani. "With this vote, the City Council ensures that Santa Monica continues to lead on the environment by being one of the first cities to ban all plastic food service ware, including cups and lids. This decision will protect our beaches while also getting us closer to our zero waste goal by 2030."
The expanded ban is also expected to reduce landfill waste, as it requires that all disposable straws and utensils be provided to customers only upon request. So often those items are provided with each order, even when a customer doesn't want them.
While other cities, including Malibu, have already instituted those requirements and have banned single-use plastics, Santa Monica's ban goes a step further by mandating the use of marine degradable items, meaning those that break down easily in water. Many products made today use plant-based plastics. They are oftentimes compostable, but are not considered marine degradable.
Some examples of marine degradable material include, but are not limited to, paper, fiber, bagasse (fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane or sorghum stalks are processed), wheat straw, seaweed, wood and food (pasta and licorice straws). Disposable food service ware made from this type of material can be disposed of in the city's organics collection containers and composted whether or not food residue is present.
By requiring marine degradable items, the city would create a more uniform stream of material that can be repurposed into compost, would reduce contamination of the recycled waste stream, and would reduce the amount of food service ware going to the landfill, city officials said.
Here's a table identifying the types of materials included in the revised law and what will fall under the "upon request" category.
The city's Office of Sustainability and the Environment staff will conduct workshops in October and other outreach activities to provide information and assistance to food and beverage providers in identifying disposable food service ware that is marine degradable and locating suppliers of alternative products.
The outreach program would strongly encourage the use of the most sustainable packaging, city officials said.
Restaurant owners, who already operate on slim margins, are concerned about the added cost of sourcing and purchasing new plant-based and bio-degradable items. Paper straws, for instance, can cost five times as much as plastic ones. That may not seem like a lot, but think of the mom-and-pop coffee or smoothie shop that uses hundreds in a day. It adds up.
There's also concern that restaurants will not have enough time to change their operations and retrain staff before the ordinance takes effect. However, if they have to charge more or have some hiccups along the way, most Santa Monicans will probably tolerate it as this is a community that embraces environmental stewardship.
"Spinning it into a positive thing as a way to brand a business as being more green and ocean friendly — that's not all a bad thing," said Hunter Hall, founder of the Santa Monica Restaurant Coalition and executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association.
Sourcing marine degradable items could be difficult as there are only a handful of producers and not all products are reliable. Will these producers be able to meet demand if more cities and counties move in the direction of Santa Monica? And will the new versions of straws, forks and bowls keep soups warm, fountain drinks cold, and saucy foods like chicken curry from leaking onto someone's car seat as they drive home to eat it?
"While we are in transition (to marine degradable products) we have to look at the practicality of the situation and what is a better starting point," said Mark Mazzoni, vice president of marketing for World Centric, which produces environmentally-friendly compostable food service products and donates at least 25 percent of its profits to grassroots social and environmental organizations.
"Do we ban all of these products (that are compostable but not marine degradable)? If you do, you find yourself in a situation where you can't replace them with reliable alternatives," he said. "I think we are probably another three to five years away from fully transitioning from petroleum-based products to marine degradable."
Kubani said in a worst-case scenario, businesses can apply for a one year, non-renewable exemption to the rule if they can show complying would cause economic hardship.
"If there's no truly feasible alternative for food safety then they'll get a waiver and we'll wait and see what the market comes up with," he said.
In the meantime, Mazzoni said more emphasis should be on changing people's behaviors by investing more in recycling and composting programs and by keeping straws and lids behind the counter.
The recycling of small items such as straws, utensils, lids, stirrers and lid plugs is not economically viable at the municipal level, city officials said. Items that are sent to the recycling facility are sorted on a conveyor belt and baled before being shipped to buyers. Small, lightweight items easily fall off the conveyor belt or become stuck in confined spaces within the equipment. The costs of bundling these items exceeds the value of the items and, therefore, they are typically sent to the landfill rather than recycled.
Recyclable plastic food containers soiled with residue is considered contaminated and no longer recyclable. Some of it can be added to the compost mix, however. Currently, 20 percent of the materials collected for recycling by the city is contaminated and sent to the landfill. It is unknown how much of that percentage is related to food containers.
For additional information, please visit www.sustainablesm.org/foodware.