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Will Los Angeles Follow New York City's Single-Use Styrofoam Ban?

While former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's vision of a metropolis without large sodas failed to become a reality, another of his food-related plans is coming to fruition. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration announced that the city will ban single-use polystyrene containers, those ubiquitous styrofoam containers found in fast food and take-out establishments. Everyone has until July 1st to comply with the new rule.

So, now that the biggest city in the country has the ban on record, will the most populous state in the union follow?

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"It actually already has," said Mark Murray, the Executive Director of Californians Against Waste.

In California, there are 74 jurisdictions that already ban single-use polystyrene. Among them are some of the usuals, like Berkeley and San Francisco, and also parts of Los Angeles County, like Calabasas and West Hollywood. But missing from that list is the city of Los Angeles itself. While the ban was never officially rejected by city officials, it never moved forward towards becoming the law.

Why is that? The same reason that keeps most of these kinds of bans from going through.

"The polystyrene industry, and specifically Dart Container, has spent a tremendous amount of money in California to try to block these bans," Murray said. From 2010-2013, the industry spent over $17,000 lobbying in California.

Efforts also include getting the L.A. Unified School District to stop using reusable trays for supposedly-recyclable single-use polystyrene trays. In 2012, students in the district led the charge to overturn this effort and ban styrofoam from L.A. Unified for good. "They've made an investment in trying to persuade the public and policy makers that polystyrene could be recyclable," Murray said. "But their track record is one of recycling failure."

The recycling problem, Murray points out, isn't that the polystyrene can't be reused. In many cases, shipping containers and packing peanuts are used more than once. But those work because the containers are clean, not contaminated by oils and other food discards that occur when the material is used to transport edible material. In those cases, cleaning the packaging and preparing it for re-use costs too much to make sense.

"In almost every single instance where those investments have been made, it's been a subsidized show, paid for by the polystyrene industry," Murray said. "And not something that's environmentally or economically sustainable. No community on its own is successfully recycling polystyrene because it's just not cost effective."

If L.A. wants to make an actual environmental impact, the city might not want to follow the New York ban for direction. For starters, Murray contends, the New York ban doesn't go far enough. It still allows for other non-recyclable materials to be used, such as rigid polystyrene, PVC, polypropylene. "These are other plastics used that are just as crappy for the environment," Murray said. Instead, L.A. should look closer to home.

"Santa Monica has the model fast food/take-out food ordinance," Murray said.

Rather than focusing on only one kind of container, Santa Monica has a ban that's more proactive. Instead of crossing off items, it tells restaurants what they can use. Simply put, the packages need to be "recyclable or compostable." So, while the new ban in New York may galvanize the environmentalists in L.A. again, the Santa Monica ordinance is a lot more effective.

"There will be a renewed effort to pass an ordinance [similar to New York] in Los Angeles," said Murray. "But environmental groups in California are going to push for a more comprehensive approach."

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