Samurai Fries from Barrio Dogg
As restaurants shift from dining in to takeout and delivery, coastal cities face a more insidious sea change: plastic.
Encinitas is moving ahead with the last phase of its plastics initiative, this one banning the retail sale of disposable food ware and other products made from expanded polystyrene. Better known as styrofoam, it's often used for carry-out.
Barrio Dogg's normal takeout container
Styrofoam's insulating qualities and low production cost have helped spread it across food retail, hospitals, and schools. But its frequent appearance at beach cleanups has led to bans, including one in San Diego that was put on hold after a lawsuit was filed by restaurant owners, a container company, and the California Restaurant Association.
Styrofoam equivalent – three times cheaper
The rules won't take full effect until October 20 to give businesses time to find alternatives, which the city has assisted with.
But no one planned for a pandemic.
"Please record my very loud NO to Phase 3 of the city’s Plastics Initiative," one resident wrote in a comment letter to the city. Businesses "are going off a cliff." Restaurants have had to close or lay off all staff. "Do NOT create one more barrier to obtaining cost-effective materials that will help these sectors get up and running as soon as possible," she said.
"This measure in particular likely will affect minority-owned businesses disproportionately."
It's been nearly three years since Encinitas first banned the use of styrofoam by food providers for to-go meals. It targeted disposable, single-use foam containers from clam shells and cups to plates and trays. School districts' food service programs were exempt, and so was food prepared or packaged outside Encinitas.
Last year, the city began working on a comprehensive plastics initiative. The first phase took effect Feb. 22, and required that plastic straws and utensils be given out only if customers asked for them or they were offered by a food provider. Straws were banned starting in August. The next phase took effect April 18, prohibiting plastic beverage bottles at city facilities and special events.
Phase three, introduced last week, kicks in June 20, prohibiting the retail sale of disposable styrofoam foodware. It includes egg cartons and food trays, as well as coolers or similar containers not encased in hard plastic, and foam packing materials.
The city's investigation of local availability of foam products found that it varies from retailers that don't sell any foam to those selling "a significant quantity of product."
Amid the coronavirus crisis, the state has suspended the plastic bag ban and fee due to worries about contamination – causing fears of a rising glut of plastic making its way to sea. In Encinitas, the plastics initiative has had wide community support among residents.
City staff said business owners could charge diners a bit more to offset the higher cost of alternative materials, and in Encinitas, no one would mind.
San Diego's styrofoam ban didn't go as well. For some restaurant owners, using more expensive materials like paper can be a significant burden.
The ban got started in February 2019, in stages like Encinitas, giving businesses time to adapt. But in December, the city halted enforcement after a lawsuit filed by three restaurant owners, Dart Container Corporation and the California Restaurant Association claimed they should have conducted an environmental study. City staff says they are working on the documentation for the study pursuant to the settlement.
For some small restaurants, the cost of alternative packaging isn't a deterrent. "We have been recycle-focused from the beginning of our restaurant project," says Pablo Rios, chef and co-owner of Barrio Dogg on Logan Avenue. "Our hot dog boats, side dish containers, and to go bags are all made of paper products and 100 percent recyclable."
The to-go containers and beverage cups are made of recyclable plastic. More complicated are the recyclable eating utensils.
City spokesperson Tara Grimes says the city can't accept recyclable utensils in recycling bins. Those with a compost bin in their yard can try composting them, she says. "Otherwise, residents should place them in their trash bins."
And while styrofoam is not considered very recyclable, especially when it's been used to hold food, Grimes says the city accepts stryofoam food containers in the curbside recycling program if they are "empty, clean, and dry."
Rios says the cost of the materials they're using is much higher than it would be using packaging like styrofoam, but environmental responsibility is part of their quality standard. COVID has pushed the costs even higher.
"Our operations cost have gone up since take out and delivery went from being 15 percent of our business to now the only source of revenue."