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Styrofoam ban: one side claims jobs; the other, the environment

August 29, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Styrofoam food take-out containers may become a thing of the past. California lawmakers are considering such a ban, the first-ever such ban in the country. Supporters say the containers create litter that's not biodegradable. Opponents fear a ban could cost jobs.

The state's litter fines don't seem to keep the shores of rivers, lakes and oceans clean. Two California companies that make Styrofoam products say numerous jobs are on the line, including at restaurants that use the goods, if a ban is approved.

Those Styrofoam containers for takeout orders and leftovers are convenient. They're sturdy and keep food warm.

But environmentalists say they're also a big headache, littering beaches and waterways.

They say Styrofoam containers have now overtaken cigarette butts as the number one item collected at trash pickup events in California's coastal communities.

"It never breaks down. It's not compostable. It's not biodegradable. It lasts forever," said state Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), the author of State Bill 568.

Lowenthal is on the verge of passing historic legislation that would virtually ban Styrofoam food containers in the state, the first in the country to do so.

Communities that recycle at least 60 percent of the containers are exempt.

Lowenthal reports 50 cities and counties already use "greener" containers and the ban must be implemented statewide for the sake of tourism.

"People come to this state because they love the beauty," said Lowenthal. "If we are now engaged in a program to pollute the state, we're going to lose that."

Joe Thompson owns the Gold Rush Grille, and since 70 percent of his business is to-go, he worries about the expense of switching over to more environmentally friendly containers. He says green products cost double, at $53 per case.

"So what happens to me is I have to lay off a part-time employee or I have to take a full-time employee to part time," said Thompson.

Thompson's customers are split over the issue. Many like the alternatives to Styrofoam.

"People don't dispose of it properly. I don't know if you can even recycle these. What do you do with Styrofoam after it's gone?" said Richard Smith, who supports a ban on Styrofoam.

But if it's going to cost jobs, that's another story.

"I think that's too much. I think it's fine how it is," said Hagan Yang, who opposes the Styrofoam ban.

Public-health groups and the chemical industry are also at odds over the bill. Foam containers can release a carcinogen called styrene under certain circumstances. Critics say the risk is low.

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