While its use is nearly phased out in the environmentally conscious Bay Area, not everyone was in agreement about the evils of polystyrene Tuesday night when the City Council voted to ban most uses of the packaging material within Mountain View's borders.
With a 4-2 council vote on Feb. 11, Mountain View joined Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Palo Alto and many other Bay Area cities in banning disposable food containers made of expanded polystyrene, also known as styrofoam. Members John Inks and John McAlister were opposed and Mike Kasperzak was absent.
The ban is set to take effect July 1, making it illegal for restaurants and other food outlets to distribute or sell disposable foam polystyrene plates, cups and containers. The inclusion of reusable ice chests in the ban spurred McAlister to vote no.
Expanded polystyrene will remain legal for "prepackaged food" and businesses can apply for a one-year exemption to use overstocked supplies or if the ban places an economic hardship on them.
Council member Inks opposed the ban, saying that the material was "unfairly persecuted" and a "wonderful packaging material. The economy and utility of styrofoam, it's very, very amazing." He admitted that it is also the hardest material to clean from local creeks.
Proponents of the ban noted that it is a unique pollutant, breaking down into small pieces that are easily blown around by the wind, mistaken for food by animals and taking many years to decompose.
"The bottom line with styrofoam is you are producing something that will be (in the environment) forever and there are perfectly acceptable alternatives to it," said council member Ronit Bryant. Bryant said the opposition to the ban was essentially saying, "It's really convenient for me to use styrofoam and that's the only thing that matters."
Mountain View senior analyst Cynthia Palacio said alternatives to polystyrene packaging made of paper and recyclable plastic are less harmful to the environment and cost only "a few cents more." She reported that a polystyrene cup can take over 50 years to biodegrade, while pieces can be mistaken for food by animals and marine life, causing disease and death.
Over 75 cities and counties have banned or restricted polystyrene in California, she added. Concern about such a ban in Mountain View has been minimal: a total of only three people showed up to two information meetings about the ban last summer.
Council candidate Jim Neal, who has publicly opposed every ban the city has implemented in the last few years, questioned the styrofoam ban from numerous angles and accused the council of "banning things just to ban them."
"When was the last time you heard of any animal choking to death on polystyrene?" Neal asked, adding that he couldn't find any evidence of such an animal death in Mountain View. "As far as it not being recyclable, guess what? It is. It's recycled right here in Mountain View."
Neal got an immediate response to his comments by the author of the ban, San Jose's environmental services specialist Paul Ledesma.
"Food-contaminated (styrofoam) materials are absolutely unrecyclable," Ledesma told the council.
The one local facility that is equipped to recycle polystyrene won't take them, he said. "It gets landfilled. None of it gets recycled. It is a unique pollutant. It breaks down, it doesn't go away. It is mistaken by marine life for food."
The effects are "widely documented on the web and not hard to find," Ledesma said.
Before the ban can be implemented a second vote is required, which is scheduled for March 25.
This story has been edited to clarify the type of polystyrene in the ban.