Ban on foam containers: Some California North Coast businesses embrace the limits, some ignore them
Screamin Mimi’s owner Maraline Mazzetti Olson used to toss a dozen bags of garbage out before she started using compostable and recyclable products.
Now the Sebastopol ice cream shop barely has one bag of trash at the end of the day.
Olson was ahead of her time when 15 years ago she switched to more environmentally friendly products. She did it because she wanted to, not because she was told to.
Today, more businesses are turning to go-to containers and straws that are biodegradable because they have to.
In November 2022, California voters will decide if there should be a statewide mandate that utensils be reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and that there be a ban on single-use plastic packaging and containers.
Polystyrene is a hard plastic that does not decompose. If it breaks apart, it can wind up in soil, waterways and ingested by wildlife. (Styrofoam is a trademark brand of expanded polystyrene foam.)
“Polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastics are a serious and readily preventable source of marine debris pollution. Many of these products are both lightweight and aerodynamic, so they are easily blown into gutters and storm drains even when ‘properly’ disposed of. They are also very brittle, so when littered they quickly break into smaller and smaller pieces making cleanup impossible,” according to Californians Against Waste.
The reality is polystyrene works extremely well and is much cheaper than alternative products. This could be why the desire to eliminate this plastic has not been universally embraced throughout the North Bay.
Californians Against Waste does not list either Napa or Solano county or any of their cities as having a ban. Yountville is the exception, having adopted a ban in 1989.
The nonprofit reports the tiny Marin County city of Fairfax embraced the ban of containers made of polystyrene in 1993. The county and other cities have since come on board.
By this fall every municipality in Sonoma County, as well as unincorporated areas, should have rules in place to eliminate polystyrene to-go food containers used by restaurants and ones sold at grocery stores. This effort is being led by Zero Waste Sonoma, a government entity for the county and nine jurisdictions within it.
What restaurants are saying
The Lunchette in Petaluma isn’t just educating customers about why it uses compostable containers for everything, the restaurant is also bringing the issue to the forefront with vendors.
This includes insisting vendors pack goods using compostable “peanuts” that dissolve immediately when they come in contact with water. This compares to the polystyrene ones which remain intact forever. Cardboard strips or other paper products are also options the restaurant suggests for packaging.
“When we order anything from vendors such as glass bottles for beverages and what not we work with them to stop using polystyrene,” explained restaurant owner Naomi Crawford. “We are moving our vendors away from polystyrene. The county can’t make outside vendors do so, so we are.”
The Lunchette has been using compostables since opening in April 2017.
“Polystyrene is the cheapest material to purchase, so when we did our business plan, we worked (compostables) into our pricing,” Crawford said. “But in the beginning we were not able to get all the compostable material we needed, but now we are able to use all compostables.”
A common theme among businesses is needing to be patient as the creators of these sustainable products keep improving upon them.
“We use reusable containers for our to-go products while we search for compostable items that are durable, that can withstand the heat from our pasta,” explained Amy Svendberg, managing partner of Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito.
She admitted one iteration of compostable to-go containers worked too well. When hot sauce was put in it, it started disintegrating before the food arrived at someone’s home, which could create a mess in vehicles.
“We are in a world of discovery right now with those products. We are not quite there with compostables that can hold up to our saucier dishes,” Svendberg said.
The restaurant provides reusable plastic containers like the ones sold in grocery stores. Soups are put in paper cups that have a recyclable lid. The goal at Poggio Trattoria is to be 100 percent compostable, but to do so will mean taking incremental steps.
Il Fornaio, which has 19 restaurants including in Corte Madera, also made a gradual transition to environmentally friendly containers. As each jurisdiction created a policy, the company would abide by it. Now eco-friendly products are at all of its locations.