Local cities have been slow to enforce their polystyrene bans. So the Weekly invites you to do the job.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Our readers voted it the Best Green Trend of 2011: replacing polystyrene take-out containers with Earth-friendlier materials, like cardboard and Taterware. As trends go, it’s a pretty hot one: The cities of Carmel, Pacific Grove, Monterey, Del Rey Oaks, Seaside and the unincorporated county, in that order, have banned foam packaging in restaurants and at special events. Salinas may soon follow suit.
— To get the full scoop on polystyrene and to report offenders, visit the Weekly's styro central here —
In every jurisdiction with a ban on the books, the grace periods for restaurants to use up their existing polystyrene stocks is over. But while some restaurants have gamely switched over to soft brown cardboard or vanilla-colored clamshell containers made out of corn and potato fibers, we’re still seeing a lot of foam leaving restaurants that aren’t supposed to be using it.
To gauge compliance without storming every food peddler in the county, Weekly writers started noting the packaging used in restaurants where polystyrene bans are in effect. Then, to broaden the input, we posted a pilot form online asking readers to do the same.
The resulting spreadsheet isn’t scientific, and it isn’t comprehensive. But it seems to confirm our suspicion that there are a lot of joints out there still slinging expanded polystyrene, which most of us know as Styrofoam. As of June 15, our two-week-old database includes 18 restaurants in apparent violation of the new law, and 12 in compliance. We won’t name them here, but you can visit www.mcweekly.com/styro to see our working list, and add to it.
Are some restaurants openly ignoring the Styro ban? Or do they simply not know about it? Are their regulators turning a blind eye while claiming Brownie points for having the ban in place, or are they just out of money? With a plastic bag ban poised to follow the polystyrene laws, we have to wonder what a ban is worth if it’s not enforced.
Monterey Regional Waste Management District spokesman Jeff Lindenthal has seen dramatic changes at some spots, like Phil’s Fish Market in unincorporated Moss Landing: “They have completely embraced the compostable products.”
He’s also seen major efforts to incorporate more environmentally friendly materials at special events, including Big Sur International Marathon, AT&T Pro Am, Castroville Artichoke Festival and the Sustainable Brands Conference.
But when he mentioned the ban to a taco truck operator serving up food on Styrofoam plates, he met resistance. “His comment was, ‘When they stop selling the products, we’ll stop buying them.’”
Some of the ordinances put the monitoring in the hands of the restaurants: a box to check on their annual business license renewal. In most cases, code enforcement staff only follow up when residents complain.
Violators are treated gently. Carmel’s law gives restaurants a warning first, then a fine of no more than $100, which can be waived if the owner produces a receipt showing the purchase of at least $100 worth of eco-friendly packaging. The third violation carries a fine not exceeding $200; the fourth, $500. (Special events have stiffer penalties.)
But with a short-staffed City Hall, Carmel’s enforcers haven’t prioritized the task, according to Councilman Jason Burnett.
“I don’t think that we can rely on the code enforcement officer to fully enforce something like this,” he says. “We need to rely instead on people to talk to stores and restaurants that are still using Styrofoam, remind them that it is banned, and then follow up and, if necessary, report to the city.”
Angela Brantley, Monterey’s solid waste program manager, says while city staff don’t march into restaurants to check on their packaging status, they do invite the public to report offenders at www.montereyrecycles.org. Complaints come in about once a month. “[Enforcement] really has come from the public,” she says. “What that tells us is that people want this.”
Two years into the law, she estimates about 90 percent of the city’s restaurants are in compliance. It’s made a difference: During coastal cleanup events, she says, “We see a lot less Styrofoam.”
In P.G., there hasn’t been much enforcement in the three years its polystyrene ban has been in effect. But the city recently sent a warning letter to its 56 restaurants, putting them on notice that the city is now taking a closer look.
“We’ve not had a code enforcement officer until this year,” explains Environmental Programs Manager Sarah Hardgrave. “Now we have more resources for follow-up.”
Seaside restaurants figure prominently in our working list of Styro offenders. But Building Official Mark McClain says the city ratcheted up its oversight: Two code enforcement officers recently visited every one of the city’s food vendors to check on their foam status.
“We’ve discovered many of the restaurants have not done the conversion,” he says.
The officers gave those not in compliance 30 days to beak their Styro habits, he adds – and during their follow-up visits, they’ll be snooping behind counters and in storage areas to make sure the stash is all gone.
Nobody likes to tattle on their favorite restaurants. And we understand that in these times, any added expense is hard on business owners. But elected officials – like our own readers – have sent a strong and united message that getting this toxic stuff out of the waste stream (and natural streams) is worth the extra investment.