POLYSTYRENE FOAM, or plastic foam, containers are still being used for to-go ordersat a restaurant in City Center on Friday. Oakland passed an ordinance
POLYSTYRENE FOAM, or plastic foam, containers are still being used for to-go orders at a restaurant in City Center on Friday. Oakland passed an ordinance banning the use of foam containers for the 1,100 restaurants, delis and other food vendors in the city. The ban went into effect Jan. 1 but many are still using the material. (Jane Tyska - Staff)
OAKLAND — Walk through downtown Oakland and it's clear some restaurants have heeded the city's new ordinance banning polystyrene (plastic) foam containers.

But many more still use the material that clogs up waterways and is almost not reusable, saying they will phase it out soon.

Councilmember Jean Quan, who authored the law that went into effect Jan. 1, recently went to some of her favorite Chinese restaurants and noticed many were still using plastic foam containers, commonly known as Styrofoam.

"There are more Chinese packages," Quan said, referring to paper takeout boxes that comply with the ban, "but for soup, they are still using Styrofoam."

She suspects in places such as Chinatown restaurants will continue to use plastic foam — which costs about one-third as much as plastic or paper products — until they are cited.

Charles Hung, waiter and manager at the family-owned Shan Dong restaurant in Chinatown, said the eatery already has purchased alternative products but is still using up its remaining plastic foam supply to the end of the week.

He said the ban places a heavier burden on smaller, mom-and-pop restaurants. Bigger chains such as Jamba Juice in City Center have switched to paper cups — but they already had to comply with a polystyrene foam ban in cities like Berkeley and Portland.

"In the Chinatown area there's a lot of competition," Hung said.


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"Unlike higher-end restaurants — their prices are already way up there and they can absorb costs more easily — everybody (here) is trying to cut their prices, and not many people can absorb the prices themselves."Shan Dong has printed its new menu, along with price increases — 45 cents extra for lunch specials that now range from $5.75 to $6.50 — partially to absorb the extra cost of replacing plastic foam containers with plastic or paper ones.

The restaurant also has added 25 to 50 cents for takeout orders, though Hung said it has not charged patrons extra for takeout yet. Like many restaurants, Shan Dong is waiting to see what other local eateries do to avoid losing customers.

The city maintains it isn't out to police the 1,100 restaurants, delis and other food vendors that sell takeout in Oakland, and instead wants to help them make the transition by providing vendor lists and offering ways to cut costs on trash disposal. The ordinance does allow for citations — first a warning, then up to $500 in fines for multiple complaints.

One major food vendor realized in the last few years that doing away with plastic foam actually cuts costs. The McAfee Stadium and Oracle Arena stopped using as much plastic as they could, even switching from plastic to polylactic acid, or PLA, beer cups, which are compostable and made from corn or beet.

"The recyclers come and they take away the compost at a cheaper rate than if we throw it in the trash," said George Valerga, director of maintenance for SMG, the company that manages the stadium and arena. He added that SMG saves a significant amount — about 10 percent — off its trash bill, and more PLA products are becoming available at almost the same price as plastic. The stadium and arena started with a grant from Stopwaste.org.

And once restaurants stop using plastic foam, it will be easier to transition from non biodegradables like plastic to compostable products like PLA or bagasse, made from sugar cane.

"The Styrofoam ban is the low bar," said Dave Grenell, former aide to former Mayor Jerry Brown, who helped draft Oakland's legislation. "I have no doubt that we will end Styrofoam takeout in Oakland."

In addition to banning polystyrene foam products, Oakland's ordinance mandates that biodegradable or compostable products must be used if the price is equal to or lesser than nonbiodegradable containers, such as plastic.

"The real war is on takeout plastics, which last for hundreds of years," he said.

Though not the first to ban polystyrene foam, Oakland is the first city in the United States to mandate using the most biodegradable takeout containers, Grenell said. It's an attempt to get rid of the petroleum-based plastic containers. 

Grenell, who has been hired as chief of staff to Richmond's mayor-elect, Gayle McLaughlin, said Richmond may consider a similar ordinance soon.

San Francisco also passed a ban on plastic foam, effective in June. It also requires vendors to use biodegradable products, even if the products cost up to 15 percent more than nonbiodegradable ones.

Berkeley — which became the first city in the nation to ban polystyrene foam back in 1990 — is also considering tacking on an ordinance that requires food vendors to use biodegradable products.

Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring, who was elected in 1992, recalls how the city's ban led to McDonald's phasing out plastic foam containers across the United States a year after the ordinance passed.

She said she would like Berkeley to adopt the biodegradable ordinance. "As soon as I heard that Oakland was doing this, I thought 'that's fantastic,'" Spring said.

In 1990, biodegradable products weren't available yet. Today, those products are starting to gain traction.

As more cities mandate their use, the belief is biodegradable products will become cheaper in the next few years. Plastic foam is less expensive in the short-term, but there are hidden costs that make its use far more costly over the long-term — including health and ecological damage, Grenell said.

"The idea is to create a local economy of scale for environmentally-friendly products," he said.

Restaurants that need technical assistance transitioning to biodegradable products and people wanting to make a complaint about a vendor using polystyrene foam containers can call the city's recycling hot line at 510-238-SAVE (7283).

Contact staff writer Momo Chang at mchang@angnewspapers.com.