BOXED IN: Expanded polystyrene, or EPS, used at restaurants fills many of California's landfills and poisons wildlife because it is so hard to recycle.
For more than a year, city officials looked at following up San Jose’s single-use plastic bag ban with an anti-EPS ordinance. (EPS stands for expanded polystyrene, otherwise known as foam to-go containers at restaurants.) Less than 1 percent of the Bay Area’s EPS is recyclable because of food contamination—the only facility capable is Newby Island in Milpitas—so the nonbiodegradable containers are left to stack in landfills and break apart, often choking animals.
Careful not to rattle small-business owners who rely on the low-cost to-go containers, the city held a series of “Green to Go” public meetings in 2011 to gather opinions on a potential ban. Few people showed, and the opposition was tepid. Many figured the end was nigh for EPS in San Jose.
That is until December, when DART—a food-packaging company that manufactures EPS products—offered San Jose $100,000 to look at other ways to meet the city’s trash-reduction goals by 2014.
“We as a staff met with DART, and at that point DART suggested they had a budget of $100,000,” says Jennifer Garnett, a spokesperson for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department. “So, what we’ve agreed to do is work on a pilot effort that is designed to explore how this partnership might work. We haven’t taken any money nor have we taken a commitment, but why don’t we try to work together to see if a private-public partnership might work to decrease litter?”
In essence, DART offered the city a payoff; the city said “No, thank you” to the money, and then San Jose officials did exactly what DART had tried to get the city to do originally.
The city’s decision to delay action on a ban, as well as turn down the money, shocked Laura Kasa, executive director of Save Our Shores, a nonprofit organization that focuses on keeping beaches clean by arguing for bans on plastic bags and other environmentally harmful single-use products.
“I thought it was way overkill they were doing eight meetings,” Kasa says. “That is more than double what any other city has done with outreach. And then DART comes in and tells you to do more outreach? That’s ridiculous.”
She adds that San Jose is now the only city in the country that found it less difficult to pass a plastic-bag ban than imposing similar regulations against EPS.
“San Jose is the only one that has a plastic bag ban and not a foam ban, and I don’t know why that is,” Kasa says, noting that more than 50 counties and cities have implemented EPS bans. “You’re talking about a lot more stores, a lot more outreach, whereas with foam you only have to talk to restaurants. It requires a much smaller behavior change.”
But for real change to occur, it seems a behavior shift needs to start at a place much higher than Main Street.
All About Green
For Kasa, litter is a personal affront. She and a compact staff of five crusade across Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, organizing cleanups and pleading for reform.
“I fully intend to do whatever it takes to get this ban back on the city’s agenda,” Kasa says. “I’m absolutely disappointed in the state of our community, because the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has millions of dollars to lobby Sacramento and local legislators, and take ads in local newspapers to convince people in the community that their products are not bad. It’s infuriating to me. We’re out there cleaning our beaches and rivers 270 times a year.”
DART’s co-conspirator in fighting San Jose’s Green Vision goals for 2022 is the ACC—otherwise known as the plastics industry. The ACC is one of the most influential lobbyist organizations in the country. The group’s deep pockets have stalled legislation at the state level as well as prodded county officials to push the buck back to cities.
Sam Liccardo, a San Jose councilmember who requested that the city speed up action on an EPS ban to this fall rather than wait until 2013, sounded incredulous when the city passed on taking action on EPS following DART’s generous offer.
“The $100,000 dollars by all appearances looks an awful lot like a bribe,” he says. “There’s no secret about what’s going on here. The question is: What’s the right policy for the city regardless of who’s throwing out the money?”
An example of the ACC’s PR-push early last year came in an email blast that included Kerrie Romanow, San Jose’s Environmental Services director. The email asks if she supports plastic bans that would “kill rather than create jobs, or further burden struggling families?”
Ed McGovern, a lobbyist for the ACC, is said to have often showed up at Green to Go meetings to let city officials know he was present, sitting in the back and rarely speaking. If he wasn’t at the public meetings, McGovern was chopping it up with City Hall officials behind closed doors or on the phone. According to lobbyist forms filed with the City Clerk, over a 12-month period ending in September of last year, the ACC paid McGovern between $40,000 to $400,000 to persuade city officials against an EPS ban.
“I think the ACC has been very effective in painting this issue not as one of a question of how best to protect the environment but how it pits the local taqueria on the street corner against government,” Liccardo says. “It doesn’t surprise me. We went through the same routine with the plastic bag ban. The plastic industry gave all types of money to engage in plastics recycling efforts, which most experts call futile. It was essentially an effort to forestall the ban.”
Even the Environmental Services Department knows this to be true. According to a staff memo, an Aug. 8 public meeting featured DART representatives proposing a greater emphasis on reducing litter through more trash cans, public education and enforcement. “Each of these actions would be more costly to the city than a prohibition on EPS food ware,” the report concluded.
Staff also noted that 90 percent of the counties and cities that have an EPS ban specifically intended to target restaurant to-go containers. Larger cities in the report “received no indications of adverse business or other negative economic effects due to the EPS ban in their community.”
The problem, Kasa says, is corporations like DART and lobbyist groups like ACC have too much manpower and money if city officials are scared to take the next step—especially in an election year.
“I met with seven members of the State Assembly and the Senate, and pretty much all of them said, ‘I don’t think we’re close yet,’” Kasa says of a trip Save Our Shores took to Sacramento last week. “One of the staffers told me, ‘You guys are here once or twice a year; these ACC guys are here 24/7.’”