By Laura Fishman

It’s in our oceans. It’s on our beaches. It fills our landfills, and it may be here to stay.

While a voluntary Styrofoam ban, which bans all plastic foams, currently exists throughout Santa Cruz County, a mandatory ban was supposed to be implemented for the city of Capitola on July 1.

At the Capitola City Council meeting on May 10, councilmembers decided to reconsider the mandatory ban on Styrofoam that was passed last December.

The ban outlawed polystyrene packaging because of its harmful effects on the environment. Styrofoam and other polystyrene foams are petroleum-based products that cause a lasting litter problem.

The non-biodegradable product never decomposes completely in landfills, and is dangerous for marine life when it ends up in the ocean.

“The number one trash product we find on the beach is Styrofoam,” said Matt McClain, director of communications for the national chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s literally impossible to clean off the beach and it doesn’t break down.”

Even with the product’s hazardous environmental effects, some people feel an outright ban is too extreme. At the May 10 meeting, three of the five councilmembers voted to reassess the ban and discuss it further at the city council meeting scheduled for June 28.

The California Restaurant Association (CRA) of 22,000 members has been lobbying against the ordinance that bans Styrofoam and has asked the Capitola city council several times to reconsider it. CRA Director of Local Government Affairs Amalia Chamorro does not feel that banning the product will solve the problem.

“There is already a voluntary ban; it shouldn’t be mandatory,” Chamorro said. “We’re not against environmental concern, but we don’t think this is the best way to address it.”

Capitola Mayor Mike Termini feels strongly that the polystyrene ban should still take effect on July 1 because of the product’s environmental damages.

“I’ve yet to hear a rational reason from the California Restaurant Association on why we should repeal the ban,” Termini said.

Chamorro said members of the CRA were upset with the ban because of the process in which it was handled. Members of the CRA wanted a chance to collaborate with the city council on the language of the ban and come up with an alternative plan to provide environmental outreach and education with local businesses.

“The process wasn’t done fairly and the city’s Commission of Environment didn’t address the problem or come to the California Restaurant Association,” Chamorro said. “We’re not sure of the real intension behind this work.”

According to Mayor Termini, the CRA and The Shadowbrook Restaurant by Soquel Creek are the only groups that have publicly announced disapproval of the polystyrene ban. Termini has received 209 e-mails from the community supporting the ban.

Organizations from around the county that publicly approve of the polystyrene ban include the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Conservation Group, The Surfrider Foundation, and representatives from the UC Santa Cruz Biology department.

McClain feels that the food industry may favor Styrofoam products because they tend to be the most cost-effective.

According to McClain, there are packaging alternatives out there that work just effectively as Styrofoam.

“There’s containers out there that are paper products, that work well,” McClain said. “Styrofoam may be the cheaper way for restaurants, but when restaurants use Styrofoam they’re only thinking about their own store rather than the whole community.”

There are exceptions in the ordinance that allow businesses to disregard the ordinance if they can prove there is no alternative product that is as cost efficient as polystyrene.

Food vendors would have a three-month grace period after the ban is put into effect and would receive a fine no greater than $500 for violating the ban.

While the CRA is against a ban on Styrofoam, other community members complain that the ban is not harsh enough. Some feel there should be bigger penalties with no exceptions.

“I would like to see a more strict ban, but for right now this is the first step,” Mayor Termini said.

The Capitola mayor concluded that the environmental damages of Styrofoam products need to be considered in the laws.

“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see the Styrofoam in the ocean,” Termini said. “There’s nothing good in Styrofoam except for the cost.”