UPDATE: Time for Action – Banning Polysterene

On August 8, 2016 members of the Culver City Community Coalition spoke in support of the idea of banning the use of non-recyclable Polystyrene Take-out Single-use Food Service Containers in Culver City.  The item before the City Council was a discussion of the proposal from the Ballona Creek Renaissance. They have provided a very detailed analysis of the proposal here.

We are sharing our notes of the meeting for those who want to stay updated. (We started taking notes a few minutes after the public comment period began).

Industry representatives from Restaurant and Supermarket Association spoke about their concerns with the proposal.  Councilmember Cooper stated that the report showed that the increase for a business would be approximately $3,000.00

Many members of the public testified on their concerns:

  • Two different Culver City residents showed pictures of how the polystyrene fragments go into the creek, accumulate very dramatically, get through various barriers, finally making it out to sea, hurting birds and marine life.
  • David Haake talked about the carcinogenic effects of polystyrene when food is heated.
  • Jim Lamm showed pictures of the young people that have been cleaning up the Creek every September and how the polystyrene trash looks from under the ocean.   Another volunteer also spoke passionately, and brought a bucket of the latest polystyrene trash that she has collected.

Councilmember Cooper asked if the problem was not the result of litter bugs, and we shouldn’t instead do something about that.

  • The next speaker talked about how that it was much easier to simply get rid of the polystyrene instead of focusing on changing litterbug behavior.
  • A representative from the Plastic Products Association did not like the idea of a ban, even though she didn’t like plastics
  • being in the trash stream.  She said it was much better to invest in litter education programs and instead consider other solutions that didn’t focus on one product.
  • One resident who had surveyed the restaurants in Culver City, found that only 7 out of 43 restaurants still used styrofoam.  Some of them said  that it was ‘so 1980s’. She said that because many restaurants have already moved on from polystyrene, Culver City should consider instead going further, to add some of the elements that Manhattan Beach has put in place.
  • Jim Province talked about how polystyrene impacts not only users but also workers that handle products made from them. He talked about how alternatives are available and the City should be a part of encouraging businesses to transition.
  • Daniel Lee talked about how unrealistic it was to suggest that recycling polystyrene was a better alternative, because of how it breaks down.
  • Another resident talked about the problem was that businesses had had plenty of time to come up with a solution, but they have not been behaving responsibly, instead they put roadblock after roadblock and not been looking at real solutions.  He said that he lives in Torrance (next to Manhattan Beach) and their ordinance is much stronger and that it hasn’t hurt businesses, so Culver City shouldn’t be afraid.
  • Another speaker who has studied all 98 existing ordinances in great detail suggested we go with the San Francisco ordinance which at this point is the strongest.
  • Todd Johnson who heads the Sustainability Committee of the Culver City School Board, did a lot of research and provided very compelling scientific evidence.  He said that while one of the objections usually presented is cost, the reality is that  school district which has many more cost constraints, still manages them.  Second objection was that recycling could work, and while schools were perfectly set up for doing this more easily than a restaurant, recycling single use polystyrene in schools had not proven to be successful.
  • A volunteer from the Surfrider Foundation talked about her experience as a surfer and how much of the trash she picks up in the ocean is polystyrene.
  • Michelle Weiner, spoke on behalf of Transition Culver City talked about how even though polystyrene appears very cheap, once you factor in all the ‘cradle to grave’ costs (such as the pollution impacts, which our entire community foots the bill for), it is really not so cheap.
  • Kelly Kent announced that the School Board is in the process of considering this issue and currently is using compostable school trays.
  • Carlene Brown read out a long list of the many cities that have already adopted Polystyrene Bans, asking the Council: “Don’t you want to join them?”
  • A representative from Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas asked that the Council consider the full impacts before making a decision and that balance environmental and economic factors.

In its deliberation, Councilmembers had this discussion:

Sahli-Wells talked about how long we have been trying to deal with the trash and we have been learning from studies about how impactful plastic pollution is on the ocean.  She shared that by 2050 the weight of plastics in the ocean will exceed the weight of fish in the ocean, including whales.

Mayor Clarke started asking Sahli-Wells about the Subcommittee meeting that brought representatives from the Sustainability Committee of Santa Monica.  Sahli-Wells pointed to the Staff report on the meeting.  She talked about how some people are no longer talking about bans on particular products, but rather starting to focus more on a zero waste policy.  She talked about how cities that were early adopters were coming back to their ordinances to make them stronger.   While Clarke expressed concern that the meeting did not include restaurants, Sahli-Wells clarified that the Chamber of Commerce was invited and that there was a significant amount of public comment.

Eriksson started his comments by asking why there wasn’t an effort to have a public forum.  Sahli-Wells responded that this City Council meeting in fact was that forum, and shared the various notifications that were sent out and the extensive outreach that was done by the city, and how many letters were received from different entities, including the American Chemistry Council.  He then went to talk about how there were larger issues to address and that the issue needed more exploration.  He gave the example of LA County where the issue was studied for a year and then was abandoned.  Same with LA City.  He suggested that the problem we were facing in Culver City was a result of this inaction.  He then proceeded to talk about we needed to focus on the behavior, on attempting to avoid littering with a campaign like Keep America Beautiful.

To respond to the point that we needed to encourage more recycling, Sahli-Wells followed with an exchange with Paul Susca (City Staff) asking him to report on his conversations with recycling facilities and asked them if they recycled polystyrene single food containers.  He learned that they don’t recycle these because they are contaminated and it costs too much money to clean them. Sahli-Wells asked if he believed that this situation could change in the near future.  Siska responded that this was not likely.

Mayor Clarke then expressed his concern that larger polystyrene packing materials weren’t getting recycled and that more research was needed to find companies that could clean them.  Sahli-Wells suggested that it would be much easier just to ban it.

Small expressed how impressed he was at the intelligence and knowledge displayed by Council members and community members and hope that this would help us towards an ordinance at a speed ‘faster than the speed of government’.  He said that he hoped we wouldn’t be ‘floundering about in indecision over this issue in this Ferrari of a City that we have.

Cooper then said that he wanted to see a draft of an ordinance by the committee.

Clarke reported that he had done extensive walking along the creek and learned that while there were spots were only a few pieces of polystyrene floating, there were other sections, near the school were there were larger collections.  He suggested that maybe the School District need to look more closely at what is going on. He thought that the concentrations that he saw made him believe that the problem was not coming from Culver City.  (Note:  Earlier in the meeting Clarke had asked Ballona Creek Renaissance when their last clean up was held. Jim Lamm said last September.  We asked Jim to provide us background and this is what he said: “BCR has a County permit to do creek cleanups based at Centinela Avenue, which is in LA and which has creekside foliage that helps capture lots of trash that has floated down the creek from Culver City and beyond. We typically do not conduct summer cleanups because most of the trash has not been flushed into the creek by rains. Our annual Coastal Cleanup Day September cleanup with Culver City and Heal the Bay is on an internationally established date and is in Culver City, where we usually find less trash, not because CC is cleaner but because it usually hasn’t rained in months and there is little creekside vegetation to hold the trash for us.”)

Cooper said that he would like to have Culver City become one of the greenest, most sustainable cities.

Finally Sahli-Wells gave an impassioned speech of why recycling was always talked about as the third option, after reducing and reusing, because it’s not the best of the options.  She expressed frustration that the Council was split on the topic and on the conversation being so focused on recycling.  “Our population is not asking us to recycle what is toxic,” she said.

In the end, Cooper made a motion that the issue be returned to the Subcommittee (which includes Sahli-Wells and Eriksson) so that it could be further studied from both sides so that draft language could be presented.  “I am leaning towards a ban”, he said, despite avoiding making a stronger motion to have the Staff prepare draft language to return back to the Council.  The Board voted 4-1 on the motion, with Thomas dissenting.