Dave Gladson currently teaches Business 475: Sustainability in Action class at PLNU. In this class, we look at the changes individuals, companies, and nations can take to be better stewards of the world God has given us. By respecting the natural boundaries of our world, we can create a happier, healthier future that provides for the needs of all 7 billion plus people who inhabit our shared planet.

On Oct. 15, San Diego took an important step towards banning disposable polystyrene foam products by giving the ordinance initial approval. Often referred to colloquially as Styrofoam, this measure will ban expanded polystyrene foam products like cups, takeaway containers, egg cartons, and foam coolers. If the ban proceeds and is signed by the mayor, it will take effect in April 2019.

San Diego will be joining more than 100 other cities in California that have already enacted similar bans. Some restaurateurs have opposed the bans, saying that alternative packaging is more expensive and will squeeze their already thin profit margins. To mitigate this, San Diego’s ordinance includes an up-to-two-year grace period for small businesses that can demonstrate an economic hardship.

Despite the potential financial hardships for some restaurants, and the effort that will go into acquiring alternative packaging, here are three reasons why this ban on styrofoam is important and two reasons why there is still more work to do.

A Good First Step: Three Reasons the Ban Is Important

Styrofoam food packaging is not truly recyclable

While it is possible to recycle some styrofoam, food containers are generally not. The contamination left behind from the food makes them difficult to recycle economically. Clean polystyrene, like packing foam, can be reused or recycled, though the market for recycled polystyrene is much smaller than the amount we produce each year.

According to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, 31,500 tons of post-consumer styrofoam was recycled in 2016. While laudable, this is dwarfed by the 6.2 million tons of styrofoam produced worldwide in 2016. The market for recycled polystyrene would have to grow immensely to match the amount we currently produce. Furthermore, most products that contain recycled plastics need a mix of recycled and new resin.

China’s recent move to ban the import of many waste materials for recycling, including styrofoam, makes it even harder to cost effectively recycle this material. It of course makes sense to continue recycling what we can in the meantime, but we need to move on to a more sustainable alternative.

Styrofoam is produced from fossil fuel

In addition to the environmental consequences of drilling for and transporting oil around the world, there is the simple fact that oil which is transformed into a single use throw away container is not available for other more important uses.

Oil is a limited resource, and it will be difficult for the U.S. to achieve our climate targets or energy independence so long as we squander oil on single-use disposable products.

In addition to the oil that goes the polystyrene itself, more fuel is required to power the process of creating it. For many plastics, as much fossil fuel is burned powering the endothermic reactions as end up in the finished product.

Oil is a limited resource, and it will be difficult for the U.S. to achieve our climate targets or energy independence so long as we squander oil on single-use disposable products.


Plastic pollution is devastating to wildlife

Plastics, including styrofoam, do not biodegrade in nature. Most plastics will take hundreds of years to break down. It is crazy to think of creating a product we use for 15 minutes that then lives on for more than 500 years.

While plastics do not biodegrade, they do photodegrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This allows them to enter the food chain at all levels. Whales swallow chunks of plastic as they filter feed for plankton and krill. Sea birds mistake floating plastic for food and bring it home to their nest, killing their young by filing their bellies with indigestible plastic bits. As plastics break down to the microscopic level, plankton consume them, allowing the plastic bits to filter back up to every animal in the food chain. If you consume seafood or use seasalt, you are eating plastic pollution as well.

If you consume seafood or use seasalt, you are eating plastic pollution as well.

Most ocean plastic washes out to sea from rivers and beaches. San Diego CoastKeeper conducts regular cleanups along San Diego beaches. In 2016, more than 11 percent of the trash they collected at beaches was styrofoam, which was the single largest category after cigarette butts. Banning styrofoam containers in San Diego will make an important dent in reducing this pollution source.

Related: Caring for Creation 

Banning Styrofoam Is Only a First Step: Two Reasons We Need to Do More

Alternative single-use products are not a perfect solution

While styrofoam products are of particular environmental concern, alternative single-use products are not a perfect solution either. Paper coffee cups still contain a thin plastic liner. Plates and cups that are marked certified compostable generally need to be composted in a high temperature industrial facility; most won’t break down in a backyard composter or in a natural environment. And while paper litter is generally less damaging to the environment than plastic litter, neither is beneficial.

These alternatives do have the advantage of using considerably less fossil fuel, and have a smaller environmental footprint. As long as the fiber for paper-based packaging is harvested sustainably, these products can act as a bridge solution while we work to rethink our relationship with disposable products.

The larger issue that a styrofoam ban does not address is our reliance on single-use disposable products to begin with.

Rethinking our culture of products

The larger issue that a styrofoam ban does not address is our reliance on single-use disposable products to begin with. This is a topic we address in the Sustainability in Action class I teach at PLNU. There is no “away” to throw things; there is only someone else’s backyard.

The problems associated with our disposable mentality are a classic “wicked” problem. The problem is highly complex, there are many stakeholders with contradictory desires, and there is no single solution that will work for everyone. In cases like this, multiple solutions are needed to tackle the problem from different angles.

Banning styrofoam packaging sets a new default for consumers. Individuals can, and should, still strive for even more sustainable solutions like bringing their own reusable coffee mugs, dining in to avoid takeout boxes, using their own reusable utensils or straws, etc. But with the styrofoam ban in place, even when the customer does not opt to make an extra effort, their choice will still be a tiny bit more sustainable than previously.

Sometimes hoping for a perfect solution becomes the enemy of a partial solution we can implement today. Let’s celebrate San Diego’s soon to be implemented styrofoam ban as a small step in the right direction. And let’s continue to vanquish complacency as we work towards even better solutions in the future.

Related: How do we live like every day is Earth Day

Dave Gladson is the Marketing Strategy Manager at PLNU, and teaches the Sustainability in Action class in the undergraduate program (BUS 475). Dave previously served in the Peace Corps in Kenya (2004-7). Dave earned a bachelor's degree from SDSU in 2003, and a master's from Bethel Seminary in 2012.