By Rachel Stern
As of July 1, 2007, coffee cups in Capitola better biodegrade.
If not, the business that supplies them will receive a first-time citation of $100, with future penalties set at $500.
A new ban on polystyrene—best known under its generic name of Styrofoam—requires cafes and restaurants to switch to food containers that will decompose if added to food compost. The ban, passed Dec. 14, 2006, would require all businesses except those provided with a financial exception from the city to phase out what many consider to be an environmentally harmful plastic.
Santa Cruz, which has had a “voluntary ban” on polystyrene since 1992, is looking to jump on the official ban-wagon.
“My feeling is that it shouldn’t be a choice,” said Sonya Newlyn, a Santa Cruz resident and avid coffee drinker on-the-go who recently disavowed the use of polystyrene. “[Especially with] Santa Cruz being a coastal environment.”
Americans use 25 billion polystyrene cups every year, many which go into the ocean without breaking down, according to Chris Moran, waste manager of the Santa Cruz Public Works Department.
Until Jan. 1, 2008, businesses in Santa Cruz can use polystyrene while still falling under the category of a “Clean Ocean Business.” The main requirement to make the claim—boasted on stickers on business windows—is to be chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) clean.
Styrene is classified as a potential human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Polystyrene manufacturing is the “fifth largest creator of human waste,” according to a recent EPA report.
The manufacture of polystyrene foam releases hydrocarbons in the air, forming ground level ozone—one of the components of “smog.”
Still, Kearsten Shepard, communications manager of the California Restaurant Association, feels that any ban on polystyrene should stay voluntary due to its benefits.
“Polystyrene is the most effective for keeping food fresh and cold,” she said. “It’s also a huge financial burden for small businesses.”
Ryan Coonerty, the vice mayor of Santa Cruz, says that the city council has been discussing a ban which would include a transition phase for businesses.
“It’s a product where the costs are far higher than the benefits and we need to look into alternatives,” Coonerty said.
Berkeley became the first city in the world to enact a polystyrene ban in 1986. Since then, over 100 cities in the United States, including Oakland, Portland, and most recently Capitola, have banned the plastic.
Mike Levy, director of the Plastics and Food Services Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council, does not agree with banning polystyrene, as he does not see any better alternatives.
“Litter does not discriminate between biodegradable and non-biodegradable,” said Levy, claiming that putting the “biodegradable” label on a product only causes people to be more careless with the method they dispose of it.
According to Levy, polystyrene is composed of 95 percent air, causing the production of it to emit fewer emissions than that of other food containers, including paper.
Furthermore, Levy stated, most post-food service containers are not recycled due to the difficulty of separating the food from the material.
According to Moran, polystyrene is only recycled when given to recycling centers in 3,000-pound volume shipments.
Polystyrene’s recycling code is the number 6. However, when polystyrene cups and other materials are recycled, they are converted into fillers in other plastics, or items that cannot be recycled, or are thrown away.
“We cannot recycle every item,” Moran said, pointing out that it’s “just not cost efficient” to recycle small amounts of polystyrene.
According to Moran, there are “all kinds of stuff coming out that’s friendly to the earth,” she said, pointing out the examples of Bagasse, or sugar cane pulp and starches and grass-based products.
While Moran said that there is a “marginal difference” in the price of these containers versus polystyrene, Levy said that they are three to four times more expensive.
Still, for many, the environmental costs are what add up the most.
“Polystyrene is a petrochemical, which we want to decrease our dependence on,” said Barbara Graves of the Capitola Commission on the Environment, the group responsible for bringing the issue of polystyrene to the city council.
According to the Agalitta Foundation for Marine Research, no naturally occurring process is capable of breaking plastic, a polymer, down. Instead, it goes through the process of photodegredation, where it turns into plastic dust.
Fifty percent or more of marine litter is in a form of plastic, according to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation.
“You as a consumer make a choice every time you go into one of these businesses,” Newlyn said. “[If you use a polystyrene container] you enjoy your coffee for 20 minutes and then have a product that will last thousands of years.”