California Ordering Takeout Containers ‘To Go’

California lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban polystyrene containers used by food vendors to serve takeout meals by 2016. The bill, Senate Bill 568, is cruising through the legislature and appears likely to become law this fall.

SB 568 specifically defines food vendors as including, but not limited to: a restaurant or retail food and beverage vendor located or operating within the state, an itinerant restaurant, pushcart, vehicular food vendors, a caterer, a cafeteria, a store, a shop, a sales outlet or other establishment including a grocery story or delicatessen.

There are several interesting exceptions included in the bill. First, SB 568 excludes correctional facilities (state prisons, county jails, juvenile halls, etc.) even though they serve food. Second, school districts do not need to comply with the bill until July 1, 2017 and they can continue to serve polystyrene if:

The governing board of the school district elects to adopt a policy to implement a verifiable recycling program for polystyrene foam food containers, under which at least 60 percent of the polystyrene foam food containers purchased annually by that school district will be recycled.

Similar recycling exemptions are available for food vendors in cities or counties that adopt recycling programs with the aforementioned 60 percent standard. The bill also does not prevent local governments from independently enacting more stringent regulations.

The health impact of banning polystyrene is unclear. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ June 2011 Report on Carcinogens lists styrene as a substance “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen. However, John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology program (a division of the federal agency), told The Sacramento Bee the risks of styrene leaching out and affecting humans “are not very great. It’s not worth being concerned about.

Bill proponents argue polystyrene is harmful to the environment, difficult to recycle and especially difficult to clean up after erosion breaks the container into pieces that do not biodegrade. The California League of Conservation Voters supports the ban saying it would help clean up waterways and beaches polluted with pieces of polystyrene.

Bill opponents argue this would place expensive and unnecessary regulatory stress on the commercial food services industry, which already operates under razor thin profit margins, and could cost jobs. The California Chamber of Commerce opposes the ban and placed SB 568 on its annual “job killers” list released this past June.

Another subset of opposition comes from individuals and groups who argue that regardless of the impact on jobs or the environment, the issue is a tragedy of the commons problem whereby littering on public property is the issue and material bans target the wrong problem.

According to the The Sacramento Bee, more than 50 cities and counties in the Golden State already have similar laws in place, but if SB 568 passes it would be the first statewide ban of polystyrene in the U.S.

For more information on similar issues, see Reason Foundation’s environmental research archive and California research archive.