The city of San Diego plans to lose at least $90,000 a year recycling plastic-foam food containers.
One of the big winners of the new plan are the makers of the plastic-foam, often called Styrofoam. They include Dart Container Corporation, a plastics maker that’s spent over $200,000 in recent years donating to local political campaigns and lobbying the San Diego City Council.
San Diego, like other cities across the state, wants to do everything it can to avoid sending stuff to landfills. There are a few ways to do this: Residents can use less, reuse more stuff or ban specific items from being used in the first.
Foam has bedeviled environmentalists because even though it’s only a small portion of what goes into landfills, it’s one of the “worst offenders” when it comes to litter. They want to ban foam rather than recycle it.
Dozens of California cities, including Encinitas and Solana Beach, have some sort of ban on foam cups, plates and carryout boxes. Dozens of other cities, including National City, recycle it instead.
San Diego threw itself into the recycle camp even after a city-funded study last year said it would waste time and money. HF&H Consultants, which did the study, told the city recycling foam food containers wouldn’t reduce litter, and would cost the city $290,000 a year.
Members of the City Council, who have been lobbied hard by Dart since 2015 to start recycling foam food containers, thought the report was incomplete. For one thing, the cost of recycling seemed inflated.
They instructed city staff to redo some of the consultant’s work. Staff figured the city could do a bit better, spending instead $90,000 a year to recycle the food containers. The City Council voted unanimously last month to give it a try.
“So you’re losing less money? That’s a great deal,” joked Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that wants to ban plastic foam food containers.
Usually, the city tries to make money off recycling. Last year, it recycled 58,000 tons of material and sold it for $3.3 million. The city also saved $2.2 million simply because it didn’t have to dump all that stuff into a landfill.
The foam recycling program, by contrast, is expected to be a money loser.
The cost comes in part from trucking the foam and other small bits of plastics to a special sorting facility in Los Angeles County that can handle the job. San Diego expects 80 or 90 trucks will make that trip each year. But unlike paper or aluminum, which generally can be resold, the market for recycled foam isn’t too hot.
The city believes the loss is a small price to pay to make things easier for consumers and restaurant owners, many of whom prefer foam because it’s inexpensive, a good insulator and doesn’t leak like paper containers.
“We don’t look at it in terms of whether we’re losing or making money,” said Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in an email. “Just like refuse collection or road repair, we’re doing it for the public good. The annual investment of $90,000 – out of a $3.6 billion budget – to recycle polystyrene food containers is a very small amount when you consider what an outright ban would have cost the public.”
The mayor’s office believes it is saving residents money on balance because restaurants would end up spending more than $90,000 to switch to other, more expensive carryout containers. Those higher costs could then be passed on to customers or cut into restaurant bottom lines. Right now, many in the restaurant industry already feel besieged by regulations, including new minimum wage laws.
Plastic foam goes by many names besides Styrofoam. It’s also called Polystyrene, or PS, and expanded polystyrene, or EPS.
But the city is also concerned people will recycle too much foam – a reversal of the typical worry that people aren’t recycling enough. That’s because the more foam San Diegans recycle, the more money the city expects to lose. If the program ends up costing more than $102,000 a year, the city reserved the right to stop recycling foam food containers, though it’s wary of confusing the public by starting and then stopping the program.
“This would not be considered lightly because we do not want to be in a position of having to inform residents they can no longer place EPS food containers in the blue bin,” said Ken Prue, the head of the city’s waste reduction division, in an email.
The recycling program isn’t available for everyone, either. Only single-family homeowners who get free trash pickup from the city can recycle their foam food containers for curbside pickup.
The rest of the city – people who live in apartment buildings and businesses – pay private companies for trash collecting and recycling services. The city has some control over what those companies do, but it does not plan to make those companies recycle plastic foam, Prue said. That’s because local recycling facilities aren’t available to process all the foam that could be recycled.
Environmentalists like Goldstein, who is based in New York, say all this suggests the city has bent over backward to give a boost to plastic foam makers like Dart.
“There are hundreds of communities around the country, including up and down the West Coast, that have concluded that recycling just doesn’t make sense — the so-called recycled plan is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said. “It’s impractical and it diverts attention from the real solution, which is to ban these environmentally-troublesome containers.”
Instead, NRDC and other environmental groups have pushed to ban foam food containers. In California, that push is following the playbook environmentalists used to ban plastic bags: Create a confusing patchwork of conflicting regulations – bags allowed in some cities, but not others – forcing the state to step in with a uniform statewide ban, according to CALMatters.
Dart opposed a ban in Sacramento, and has been officials in San Diego for several years to recycle foam food containers instead.
At one point, Dart offered to give the city equipment to help recycle foam, but the city found the costs were going to be prohibitive in the short term.
In recent years, the company has given $51,000 to local campaigns, including $15,000 to San Diegans to Protect Jobs & the Economy, an independent expenditure committee that supported Faulconer’s first run for mayor in 2014. It’s paid $125,000 to lobby city officials, and has also given $35,000 to the county Republican Party and $5,000 to the county Democratic Party.
Dart argues banning one product doesn’t necessarily reduce litter. Ban foam cups, and people will use paper cups, which have their own problems. The foam industry also argues that people use multiple paper cups instead of one foam cup.
“Recycling ‘non-biodegradable’ products like aluminum, glass, and plastic (Including PS foam) is a win for the environment and banning items that get littered doesn’t make any since as they will simply be replaced with new products,” Dart’s local lobbyist, Clarissa Reyes Falcon, said in an email.
This isn’t just an industry talking point: The State Water Resources Control Board noted that data from San Francisco showed that banning foam food containers simply changed the type of litter found on the street, it didn’t actually reduce the litter.
Still, some cities that recycle foam say it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Foam food containers are especially hard to recycle if they have oil or grease on them. So, ideally, people who want to recycle them should wash them off – which partially defeats the point of using them in the first place.
Los Angeles, for instance, told San Diego’s consultants that other cities shouldn’t think of recycling foam food containers unless there can be some way to keep oil and grease off the material.
Unless the foam is clean, it’s hard to recycle and resell. San Diego already allows people to recycle some foam that is used for packaging and is generally clean, like those big slabs that encase new TVs and refrigerators.
Cities like Solana Beach and Encinitas have banned foam containers outright. Solana Beach, citing the difficulty of recycling foam food containers, chose to define foam food containers as “non-recyclable.”
The two beach communities wanted to reduce foam scattered across beaches and polluting the ocean. In 2016, the San Diego chapters of Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation collected nearly 82,000 pounds of litter from local beaches and found that nearly half the debris was plastic and “much of it was non-recyclable expanded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam,” though the study does not break down how much of the foam was coming from cups and plates versus foam coolers and other things.
In San Diego, officials decided it’s better to try to change behaviors than ban something outright.
Councilman Chris Cate said the cost of recycling foam is a small price pay to avoid the “extreme route” of banning the material.
“I think it’s easier for everybody, from an education, incentive-based approach,” he said.
Cate pointed to a campaign by Surfrider that encourages restaurants to self-regulate by using biodegradable takeout containers, rather than foam ones.
Surfrider’s ultimate goal, though, is a ban.