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To Ban or Not to Ban: Plastic Bags and Polystyrene

Due to environmental impacts and litter clean-up costs, several cities on the Peninsula have banned polystyrene foam take-out containers, and others are considering plastic bag bans

It’s no secret that environmentalists aren’t fans of plastic bags and polystyrene foam—also known by its trademarked name, Styrofoam.

They’re difficult to recycle and cause a big litter problem, so many communities on the Peninsula and around the state are actually banning them in their jurisdictions.

Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, San Bruno, Millbrae, Pacifica and South San Francisco have all banned polystyrene take-out containers at certain businesses and restaurants, and Foster City, Daly City and Belmont are considering passing similar ordinances. Redwood City stil has yet to place any bans on certain products.

While other Bay Area cities like San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Jose prohibit distribution of plastic bags from grocery stores and major retailers, no city in San Mateo County has enacted a plastic bag ban yet, although cities like Daly City, Belmont, San Carlos and Millbrae are currently deliberating the issue.

What’s the problem with plastic bags and polystyrene?

Because bags and polystyrene are lightweight and aerodynamic, they can easily be blown into gutters and storm drains and end up in our waterways, where they won’t biodegrade for centuries.

Once in the water, the plastic products pose a serious threat to marine life. Marine animals often mistake the plastics for food and ingest them—bags resemble the sea turtles’ favorite snack, jellyfish—which can lead to starvation, infection, suffocation or drowning.

This plastic litter not only harms wildlife, but it can also hurt the local economy. California’s coastal tourism industry relies on picturesque beaches and oceans. Beaches littered with plastic bags, take-out containers and other trash drive away tourists and mean less money flowing into the local economy.

Government agencies spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year cleaning up litter, including plastic bags and polystyrene. In the 2006 fiscal year, Caltrans spent $55 million to remove litter and debris from roadsides and highways, some of which would have otherwise ended up in the ocean, according to a report by the state’s Ocean Protection Council.

Manufacturing plastic bags and polystyrene also takes a toll on the environment. Like other plastic products, plastic bags and polystyrene are made from oil and natural gas—resources that require energy-intensive extraction and production, pollute the environment and have significant political and social implications.

And unfortunately, recycling hasn’t made a dent in this waste stream. Californians use 19 billion single-use plastic bags annually, and San Mateo County residents can’t recycle bags curbside—the most convenient recycling option. Despite a 2006 California law requiring large retailers and grocery stores to collect plastic bags for recycling, fewer than 5 percent of bags are recycled, according to advocacy group Californians Against Waste.

Of the 377,579 tons of polystyrene produced in California each year, 154,808 tons are food service packaging, says Californians Against Waste. And there are currently no options to recycle polystyrene take-out containers on the Peninsula.

Opponents of polystyrene bans say that alternative take-out containers can be costly and don’t protect the food as well. However, as more cities ban these take-out containers—the state Senate is currently considering restricting the material statwide—a higher demand from restaurants will cause prices to go down and technology to improve.

A common criticism of prohibiting plastic bags is that legislation will simply lead to stores distributing more paper bags, which are also not as eco-friendly as reusable shopping bags. Many jurisdictions that have banned plastic bags have addressed this issue by placing a small fee (usually 5 cents or 10 cents) on paper bags to provide an incentive to shoppers to bring their own bags to the store.

Plastic bags and polystyrene containers may be convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost to the environment and our wallets. Banning these plastics may be the most effective tool we have at this time to reduce our use of these problematic materials.

Alexis Petru lives in San Bruno and is a staff writer for the national environmental website Earth911.com. Her column appears biweekly on Saturdays.

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