As San Diego prepares to enforce its long-awaited plastic foam ban, who might get a reprieve?

Plastic foam products such as food trays, takeout containers, pool toys and more will not be allowed under San Diego's ban.
Plastic foam products such as food trays, takeout containers, pool toys, egg cartons, coolers and more will not be allowed under a San Diego ban taking effect Saturday, April 1.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

The city is working to coach businesses, clarify rules and field waiver requests. Several La Jolla restaurants say they already don’t use the banned products.


With enforcement of San Diego’s new ban on plastic foam food trays, takeout containers, pool toys and more scheduled to take effect Saturday, April 1, city officials are working to coach affected businesses, clarify the complex regulations and consider emergency waiver requests.

Such requests include one from a coalition of grocery stores asking for a two-year reprieve for raw-meat foam packaging. The coalition says complying with the new law would sharply raise local meat prices and reduce availability.

The long-awaited ban, which was delayed three years by litigation, also covers plastic foam egg cartons, coolers, ice chests, dock floats and mooring buoys. The products, often sold under the brand name Styrofoam, are made of the chemical compound polystyrene.

Restaurants would have to stop using foam food containers and retailers wouldn’t be allowed to sell foam pool toys or coolers.

Starting April 1, retail stores can’t sell those products and residents can’t use them at city parks or beaches. An exception is made for prepared foods that are packaged elsewhere and then sold in San Diego stores, such as soups sold in foam containers.

The ban, which the City Council finalized in December, also requires restaurants and food delivery services to stop giving out straws and plastic utensils unless customers request them. But city officials recently clarified that restaurants may continue to have self-service areas with straws and utensils.

The legislation, which is scheduled to take effect in April, also will make straws and plastic utensils available only by request.

Supporters of the ban say plastic foam products poison marine life and damage the health of people who eat seafood, since foam is not biodegradable and continuously breaks into steadily smaller pieces.

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

But many taco shops, pizza parlors, convenience stores and other small businesses continue to use plastic foam products to save money.

In La Jolla, the effect of the ban may be minimal, as many restaurants do not use polystyrene products.

Harry’s Coffee Shop owner John Rudolph said the 63-year-old cafe stopped using plastic foam about eight years ago.

“The main reason for ending its use was environmental and also not wanting to be associated with it,” Rudolph said via his brother James. “Styrofoam is a fraction of the cost compared to the recyclable items, so many businesses opt to use it because of the substantial savings. But for Harry’s, the environmental costs were too high.”

Megan Heine, owner of Brockton Villa in The Village and Beaumont’s in Bird Rock, said plastic foam containers were never used in her restaurants because “we never liked it.”

Similarly, the Smallgoods cheese and sandwich shop hasn’t used polystyrene since opening in 2020. “It always had a stigma for being bad and not a good compostable material,” said co-owner Jenny Eastwood. “It’s hard to find sustainable materials, which we really strive to use, but it is getting better.”

San Diego’s ban was initially approved in 2019 but was delayed by litigation filed by restaurants and foam container companies seeking a comprehensive analysis of the ban’s potential environmental effects.

That analysis concluded that the environmental benefits of banning the foam far outweigh a slight increase in truck pollution caused by the switch from foam to heavier paper products.

“[Polystyrene] always had a stigma for being bad and not a good compostable material.”

— Jenny Eastwood, co-owner of Smallgoods in La Jolla

City officials said they recently sent out informational mailers to 9,000 local businesses. The mailer was translated into Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

The city also held a March 2 public forum in Linda Vista and conducted a March 7 online webinar. At both events, businesses asked questions focused mostly on how the rules work and how to apply for a waiver.

City officials are relying on environmental groups, trade associations and community groups to help spread the word about the ban. The website has many details.

The website also has printable posters that businesses can hang at their drive-through windows or place at tables to explain the ban to customers and employees.

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

San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland also have bans, and one in Los Angeles takes effect in April.

To soften the impact on small businesses that still use plastic foam, San Diego’s ban includes delays and hardship exemptions.

Businesses with annual gross revenue of less than $500,000 don’t need to comply with the ban for a year after it takes effect, giving them until April 2024. No waiver applications are required for that exemption.

There also are hardship exemptions for businesses that either can’t find a reasonable alternative to polystyrene or have entered long-term contracts for such products before the new city law takes effect.

Businesses seeking those waivers must apply for an exemption and have it granted, which could come with special conditions.

Jennifer Ott, a city recycling specialist spearheading enforcement of the ban, said officials will take an education-first approach, with warnings and fines coming only after attempts to get businesses to comply.

“Enforcement will be largely complaint-based,” Ott said during the March 7 webinar. “Our goal is to let businesses know about this ordinance and how to comply with it.”

Ott said fines will be a last resort. Initial site visits after a complaint will focus on offering technical assistance to the business and possibly issuing a written warning. Fines would not begin until the third or fourth visit, she said.

The waiver request from local grocers says they support the environmental goals of the new law and intend to comply with it eventually. But the stores, represented by the California Grocers Association, say they need more time.

“Operational changes, procurement processes and implementation for changes of this magnitude by grocers and manufacturers is difficult and is proving to be impossible on this time frame and scale,” the grocers say.

They estimate that 80 percent of the raw meat products sold in local grocery stores use packaging that doesn’t comply with the city’s new law.

Compliance would cost millions, they say, because it would require changes both at local stores, where they say roughly half the meat is packaged, and by suppliers, where the other half is.

Grocers so far have deemed alternate packaging options not sturdy enough or effective at keeping air and moisture away from raw meat, which is particularly vulnerable to spoilage and contamination.

City officials said they will conduct a thorough review of the grocers’ waiver request, including researching possible alternative products used by similar businesses. The city may ask the grocers for additional information, officials said. ◆