City bans sale of polystyrene

The Sonoma City Council on April 5 voted to approve an ordinance to ban polystyrene containers - including food coolers, takeout meal boxes, shipping foam and pool noodles from sale or use in the city.

Council members voted 5-0 to ban polystyrene products, which contain chemicals that do not compost, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller “microplastics” that get into the water and food supply of fish and wildlife.

The ordinance is based on a template from Zero Waste Sonoma, formerly known as Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, and several other cities in the county have already adopted variations of the ban, including Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, Sebastopol and Petaluma.

Common uses of polystyrene pellets include foam picnic coolers, shipping peanuts, molded shipping containers for breakable items, takeout food plates and similar products. It also applies to disposable plastic service ware, such as spoons, forks or sporks.

As well as polystyrene products, made from tiny plastic nuggets that do not break down over time and create “microplastics” which exist indefinitely in landfill, landscapes and the ocean, the ordinance also bans PFAs, perfluoroalkyl and polyflouroalkyl substances, similar “forever chemicals” linked to adverse human and animal health effects.

Travis Wagner, the city’s sustainability manager, tailored the proposed ordinance to allow a limited exemption to the ban in the case of a public health emergency or a disruption on recycling or composting facilities. Also, disposable food service ware that does not contain polystyrene foam or PFAs must be accepted for recycling or composting in Sonoma.

There is no penalty for private use of polystyrene pool equipment.

Alternative materials are available for most if not all of these uses, said Wagner.

After some discussion, the council members voted that the ordinance would go into effect on Oct. 1, three months’ earlier than the county’s own ban. Wagner and the city made outreach to local businesses in winery shipping, food service and hospitality to inform them the changes were coming.

Councilmember Kelso Barnett asked specifically about pool noodles, the common polystyrene product associated with residential, recreational use. Wagner explained that, like the other objects on the list, the colorful flexible pool floaties are made of the same kind of polystyrenes, and unless they are encased on another material they will break down over time into the same problematical microplastics.

However the ordinance only bans the sale of polystyrene products; pool owners could order them online or go to Napa, until wider legislation is imposed. There is no penalty for private use of polystyrene pool equipment.

Fines for violators could be levied from $100 for a first violation up to $1,000 for an event of over 600 people where the products are used.

The ordinance returns to the City Council at their next meeting, April 19, when it is to be adopted on the consent calendar.

Sonoma becomes the sixth county jurisdiction to pass the ordinance banning the use of these chemical containers and other products. Polystyrene bans are under active consideration by Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati. The County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a county resolution and ordinance at its Aug. 24 meeting.

But as Wagner told the Index-Tribune, most action on the issue is at the local level. “There is very little federal role in solid waste management other than minimum landfill criteria and some research. There have been occasional attempts at the state level to ban or restrict polystyrene food service ware, but none have passed.”

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