Styrofoam on the chopping block 

An attempt to ban Styrofoam products throughout San Mateo County is in the works as cities continue to tackle the issue on their own in an effort to end environmental pollution.

Dean Peterson, San Mateo County’s director of environmental health, said a draft ordinance that would require businesses to discontinue using polystyrene-based products, or Styrofoam — often used for food storage or takeout — will go before the Board of Supervisors Environmental Quality Committee next month for discussion.

Peterson said polystyrene is becoming a pollutant and the county wants to find ways to prevent it from ending up in rivers and along the shoreline.

“During coastal cleanups, the No. 2 pollutant on the list we see people collecting is takeout food containers,” he said. “So we see this as a fairly large problem.”

If a ban were to pass, it could go into effect by January for businesses in the unincorporated areas of San Mateo County. Enforcement, Peterson said, would happen during routine health inspections of facilities.

Peterson said if successful, county officials would then approach cities to encourage adoption of a similar ordinance. Businesses that do not conform could face up to $500 fines for repeated offenses, according to the draft ordinance.

There are an estimated 200 businesses that would be affected in unincorporated San Mateo County. There are 3,500 food-related businesses in the county.

Three cities in San Mateo County — South San Francisco, Millbrae and Pacifica — already have bans in place.

On Wednesday, a group of students from the California Interest Research Group gathered in Berkeley to push for a statewide ban on the carryout containers being used in restaurants. A bill had been introduced by Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, but it was pulled last year because of the possibility of it hurting jobs.

Peterson said the county also had considered a ban in summer 2008, but the timing was off and the cost for the alternative-to-foam products, such as cardboard or plastic, was too expensive.

According to Peterson, the cost for a small business to switch from the foam-based carriers to an alternative would be as much as $200 a year. For a medium-size business, that cost could rise to $400 each year.

Mary Felix, resident of Pacifica and employee of Café Lucca in Montara, said she would support a countywide ban even though Café Lucca has been using cardboard containers for years.

Larry Buckmaster, president of the Redwood City Chamber of Commerce, said his biggest fear is that the ordinance may hurt small restaurants.

“If it works it’s a good deal,” he said. “But I think it would have to make sure it doesn’t penalize small businesses.”

Out with polystyrene?

San Mateo County is proposing a ban on foam-based products.

  • 200 Businesses affected in unincorporated San Mateo County
  • 3,500 Food-related businesses in the county
  • $200 Cost per year for some firms to replace Styrofoam
  • $500 Potential fine for repeat offenders
  • 3 Peninsula cities with bans already in place
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