SAN JOSE -- At Sante Grill in downtown San Jose, the owner worries that a proposed citywide ban of Styrofoam containers means the grill's juicy bison burgers and lobster rolls won't travel as well in plastic or cardboard boxes.
At Flames Eatery & Bar, managers are concerned the higher cost of most replacement containers is coming on top of the added expense of a San Jose voter-approved $2 minimum wage hike, which starts next month.
A year after San Jose imposed a plastic bag ban on 5,000 San Jose retailers -- environmentalists say the bags foul waterways, clog landfills and threaten wildlife -- the City Council on Tuesday will consider a draft ordinance that would phase out foam food service ware at restaurants for similar reasons.
If passed, the ordinance, which will get its final council reading and vote this summer after further environmental review, would start in January 2014 for larger establishments and in January 2015 for smaller eateries. Some hardship exemptions could be granted.
While San Jose is poised to be the largest city in the state to enact the ban -- and believed to be the largest city in the country to do so -- it's anything but the first. Environmentalists say 71 cities and counties in California and 30 in the Bay Area already have banned polystyrene foam, commonly known by the trade name Styrofoam.
At Britannia Arms, a British pub not far from San Jose City Hall, restaurateur Sonny Walters has made peace with the proposed ban.
"I come from a history of what's good for the environment,'' Walters said. "Even though it will cost more, the cost is minimal.
"It's a better decision to go ahead and ban it, considering all the damage it causes," said Walters, a co-owner of the pub, who is more concerned about the effects of the wage hike. Besides, he'd already witnessed a similar 2007 polystyrene ban in San Francisco eateries when he worked in that city.
The damage the containers can cause was on display Friday morning at Selma Olinder Park, where a stormwater trash catching device had trapped piles of plastic foam food containers made from expanded polystyrene -- EPS -- that many restaurants give customers for their leftovers or takeout orders.
"The issue has been debated for several years in our city, and it's time to move forward,'' said San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo, a steadfast proponent of the ban. "We want to see a substantial reduction of polystyrene in our creeks and our landfills, and I encourage local businesses to talk to businesses in other cities and towns that have adopted bans. The economic impact has been very minimal.''
Liccardo on Friday released a memo asking the city to agree with a November city staff report on the proposed ban and its recommendations, and to initiate a countywide environmental impact report paid for by the city and county that would be finished in a few months. The result, he said, would help other cities in the county get on board, and allay their worries over potential litigation from opponents, including polystyrene producers.
The San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce opposes the ban, saying it couldn't come at a worst time for San Jose restaurants that are about to see their labor costs increase 25 percent when the minimum wage hike from $8 to $10 an hour kicks in March 11.
"Although we share the environmental concern regarding the product in the waste stream and waterways, there would be an affect on many small businesses and local restaurants'' because of the ban, most notably the cost, said chamber CEO Matt Mahood.
According to an economic impact analysis of polystyrene foodware costs contracted by the city, the average cost for a 7-inch plate increases from 3 cents for EPS to 5 cents for a fiber plate; an 8-inch clamshell increases from 12 cents to 24 cents, and a 12-oz. hot cup increases from 3 cents to 9 cents.
Mahood said his group will encourage the City Council to allow local eateries to have flexibility and use some polystyrene along with other non-Styrofoam products.
Environmentalists vehemently disagree with that notion, pointing out that Styrofoam in any quantity remains an insidious polluter that is tough to contain in landfills where it breaks apart. And because it's so lightweight, "it's easily carried by the wind into waterways,'' said Allison Chan of Save the Bay, a nonprofit that seeks to protect and restore San Francisco Bay. When that happens, she said, it's difficult to remove from storm drains and waterways where wildlife consume the foam and cannot digest it.
City staff and leaders have said they wanted to take a cautious approach to a Styrofoam ban, studying the effects of the plastic bag ban first before moving ahead.
Since the bag ban was enacted Jan. 1, 2012, city staff has reported litter from plastic bags has been reduced about 89 percent in the city's storm drain system, 60 percent in city creeks and rivers and 59 percent in city streets and neighborhoods.
Staff and some city officials believe a similar ban of polystyrene food ware by restaurants would help the city reduce litter and protect water quality in its waterways that flow to the bay.
Opponents of the ban, including the California Restaurant Association and polystyrene manufacturer Dart Container Corp., say polystyrene is cheaper and a better value than alternatives because it can better insulate temperatures of food and beverages.
Advocates also say that contaminated polystyrene is recycled in 65 communities in California.
But Paul Ledesma, trash reduction coordinator for San Jose's stormwater program, said the city, working with its waste haulers, has tried to recycle contaminated polystyrene from residents for many years and have "not been able to do that and market it."
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.
These cities are among those that have banned polystyrene foam containers:
Alameda (City of)
Half Moon Bay
San Mateo County
Santa Clara County
South San Francisco
Source: Save the Bay
WHAT'S NEXT FOR SAN JOSE
Tuesday: City Council votes whether or not to move forward with Styrofoam ban
This summer: Council expected to finalize vote on Styrofoam ban
January 1, 2014: Date ban would go into effect for major restaurants
January 1, 2015: Date ban would go into effect for smaller restaurants
Source: San Jose Environmental Services Department