San Diego’s new foam ban is going smoothly so far — partly because there’s so little enforcement

Tribune Content Agency

Early enforcement of San Diego’s new ban on polystyrene foam food trays, pool toys and other products has gone smoothly so far, with few complaints about violations and only a small number of businesses asking for exemptions.

The lack of controversy since the ban took effect April 1 is partly because city officials have opted so far against aggressive enforcement, relying only on complaints from the public instead of visiting businesses for inspections.

The city also exempted for one year any business with annual revenue less than $500,000, delaying enforcement until next spring for hundreds of local taco shops, pizza parlors and other establishments that use cheaper foam products to save money.

There has been slightly more controversy over a second component of the new law that requires businesses serving food to only provide straws and plastic utensils when customers request them.

Several businesses have asked city officials to clarify how to set up self-service kiosks for straws and utensils. In addition, some third-party food delivery companies have been doling out utensils even when customers chose not to receive them.

San Diego is joining more than 130 other California cities with bans on polystyrene foam, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Imperial Beach. Oceanside and Coronado are the only local coastal cities without a ban.

The ban covers foam egg cartons, takeout containers, meat trays, coolers, ice chests, dock floats and mooring buoys. Retail stores can’t sell those products, and residents can’t use them at city parks or beaches.

San Diego’s ban was delayed three years by litigation from restaurants and container companies.

Supporters, including many environmental groups, say foam products poison marine life and damage the health of people who eat seafood, because the foam is not biodegradable and only continuously breaks into steadily smaller pieces.

Often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, the products — made of the chemical polystyrene — enter local waterways and easily get consumed by wildlife after they break down into pieces.

Nearly all national and regional restaurant chains long ago stopped using polystyrene in response to lobbying from environmental groups and backlash from customers concerned that foam isn’t biodegradable.

But the ban is expected to have a big effect on taco shops, pizza parlors, convenience stores and other small businesses that continue to use foam products. It also affects some grocery stores and big-box chains.

The city granted an exemption through the end of 2024 to all local grocery stores and big-box chains that sell meat products packaged in foam.

The stores, which are represented by the California Grocers Association, say compliance would sharply raise local meat prices because an estimated 80 percent of the meat sold in local grocery stores uses non-compliant packaging.

Despite the exemption, Costco stores within the city of San Diego have voluntarily replaced foam meat trays with biodegradable plastic trays.

Jennifer Ott, a city recycling specialist spearheading enforcement of the ban, said the grocery stores weren’t given a blanket exemption that allows them to ignore the new law.

They are required to report to the city, store-by-store and chain-by-chain, the progress they are making to shift away from foam packaging.

“It keeps it at the forefront of their minds how the transition is going,” Ott said.

The city waiver likely means local grocery stores will be exempt until a state ban on foam products supersedes the city legislation.

A state ban is scheduled to take effect at the end of 2024 — the same time the city waiver is set to expire — unless recycling of foam products in California reaches 25 percent, which is considered highly unlikely.

The grocers received one of two “feasibility” exemptions granted by the city. The other went to a small independent restaurant, which got a six-month waiver to shift away from foam products.

The city also granted two “contractual requirement” exemptions, which go to businesses that have ongoing contracts to buy foam products. Those exemptions went to a small grocery store and a restaurant with a small number of locations.

Hundreds more businesses have gotten automatic exemptions that don’t require any application because their annual revenue is less than $500,000. Businesses hoping to extend such exemptions past April 2024 will need to apply next spring, which will include submitting tax documents showing their revenue.

“They will also need to demonstrate to us that they have looked at other products and show us what the pricing difference is, and we’ll assess all the pieces,” Ott said. “I can see us doing a bunch more outreach at that point and then getting some more waiver requests.”

Through last week, Ott said the city had received only nine complaints about businesses potentially violating the new law. When they get a complaint, city officials call a business and explain the new law to the manager. So far, they haven’t conducted any site visits.

Anyone who sees a business that could be in violation should call (858) 694-7000 or send an email to

Ott said city officials are upbeat about how things have gone so far.

“We’re proud that we passed this ordinance and the implementation is going really well,” she said. “Our approach is business-friendly. We want to work with the business to figure out what’s going to work for them.”

But she said city officials are putting together enforcement procedures for the future. She said they tentatively plan to make at least one site visit, possibly two, before issuing a notice of violation and levying fines.

She said that if compliance is spotty in the future, the city’s Get It Done! tipster app could possibly be updated to include reporting of violations of the foam ban.

Ott said she is unsure whether pool supply stores have started complying with the new law. She said the city sent them mailers and none applied for exemptions, but there haven’t been any site visits to verify.

The rule requiring straws and utensils to be provided only upon request has prompted many questions, Ott said, especially about making such items available in self-service areas.

“The utensil provisions can be a little confusing,” she said. “We can talk them through how that will work at a drive-through or self-serve station — the things they are allowed to do and not allowed to do.”

She also noted that a related state law goes beyond the city legislation. In addition to requiring that customers ask for utensils, the state law outlaws bundling of multiple utensils in one package and mandates that condiment packets be given out only upon request.

Another issue has been with drivers for delivery services, such as DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats, providing utensils to customers even if they opted against receiving them when they placed their order. Ott said city officials have been grappling with how to handle enforcement in such situations.

Ott also provided some tips for people who want to support the new law.

They include keeping a reusable utensil kit, including a straw, in your car or bag; using a reusable travel coffee mug; and bringing reusable glass, metal or plastic food containers to restaurants for any leftovers to be brought home.

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