How San Francisco’s Polysterene Ban Fits into its Zero Waste Ambitions

How San Francisco’s Polysterene Ban Fits into its Zero Waste Ambitions

San Francisco has celebrated many milestones—often ahead of the rest of the nation—since it set its zero waste goals more than a decade ago

Last month the city of San Francisco took its latest step in its march toward zero waste by 2020 by passing an ordinance banning the sale of polystyrene within the city limits.

The board unanimously passed the Food Service and Packaging Waste Reduction Ordinance that expands a 2007 ordinance prohibiting the sale or distribution of polystyrene foam and non-compostable or non-recyclable food ware products. The new ordinance now prohibits selling or distributing polystyrene foam packaging including packing peanuts, as well as meat trays, coffee cups, coolers, ice chests, pool or beach toys, dock floats, mooring buoys, anchors or navigation markers.

The original ordinance restricts the use of polystyrene foam food service ware and requires it to be replaced with less hazardous, compostable or readily recyclable products. The city has said that barring the sale of polystyrene products will further protect the public health and safety of San Francisco's residents, as well as its natural environment, waterways and wildlife. Those who spoke in opposition of the ban say polystyrene products are safe and can, in fact, be recycled.

The ordinance restricts the use of polystyrene foam food service ware and requires it to be replaced with less hazardous, compostable or readily recyclable products. The city has said the sale of polystyrene products will further protect the public health and safety of San Francisco's residents, as well as its natural environment, waterways and wildlife.

San Francisco is the first in the country to ink such a strong ordinance banning the plastic foam. Board of Supervisors President London Breed introduced the bill in April and celebrated its passing on Facebook by writing:

“I just passed the toughest anti-Styrofoam law in the country and we did it unanimously! This is a huge step for our environment and health. San Francisco is on our way to leading the country on environmental policy—again!"

In fact, the city has celebrated many milestones—often ahead of the rest of the nation—since it set its zero waste goals more than a decade ago.

  • In 2003, after San Francisco successfully achieved the state-mandated 50 percent landfill diversion by 2000, San Francisco wanted to extend its commitment to landfill diversion and set a goal of 75 percent diversion by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. The city positioned itself as a national leader striving for zero waste and directing its Department the Environment to develop policies and programs to increase producer and consumer responsibility to meet that goal.
  • That same year, the Board of Supervisors banned plastic bags at grocery stores and pharmacies across the city. Again, San Francisco was the first in the U.S. to have such a ban. It was seven years later when the state of California followed suit, passing a statewide ban on the plastic bags.
  • In 2007, the city of San Francisco banned the use of polystyrene in food service, including use by restaurants, delis, fast food establishments, fair vendors and food trucks. Since then, food vendors and restaurants in San Francisco have been required to use compostable or recyclable to-go containers. The ordinance allowed for restaurants and food service establishments to be fined up to $500 for refusal to comply.
  • In 2009, the city became the first in the nation to require both businesses and residents to separate recyclables, compostables and landfill -bound trash into separate bins. Again, non-compliance can result in fines.
  • The city worked to reduce the food waste going to landfill as well. By 2011, Recology Inc., the city’s contracted waste hauler, celebrated a milestone when it picked up its one millionth ton of food scraps through San Francisco’s composting program. Since its inception in 1996, San Francisco’s composting program generated more than 600,000 cubic yards of finished compost and diverted one million tons of food scraps and plants from landfills.
  • Thanks to source reduction, materials bans and mandatory recycling and composting, in 2013, the city boasted an 80 percent diversion rate from landfill. The initial goal was 75 percent recycling by 2020—which was replaced by zero waste in that same time frame.
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