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LA’s Plastic Bans Help the Environment But Can Sometimes Hurt Small Businesses

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These eco-friendly ordinances can have some unintended consequences

New York City Poised To Ban Styrofoam Food Containers Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

2018 is the year of the plastic and styrofoam bans. Throughout Southern California, city councils are calling on restaurants, bars, and cafes to replace these items with environmentally-friendly alternatives like paper straws, recyclable utensils, and paper to-go containers. And while much of the California public supports these measures, there are some unintended consequences within this eco-friendly movement.

Here’s the local and statewide legislation that has already passed

There’s been a spate of recent eco-friendly activity throughout the Southland, some as recent as this week. Santa Monica’s City Council passed a new ordinance on Tuesday that requires food service workers to provide plastic utensils upon request only. This is hardly Santa Monica’s first step into environmental awareness. Citing the need to curb beach pollution, Santa Monica launched a non-recyclable food service container ban for all food service providers back in 2008.

This week, Los Angeles city councilman Bob Blumenfield proposed similar legislation for a “plastic utensils on request” ordinance in the City of Los Angeles. In April, Manhattan Beach eliminated plastic straws and utensils from the city limits, and Long Beach banned single-use styrofoam. In February, Malibu banned plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic utensils. And in January, a Whittier assemblyman co-authored a bill to limit the use of plastic straws.

In Long Beach, the April styrofoam ban will roll out over the course of 18 months. Starting in June, Styrofoam is no longer allowed at city facilities and city-permitted events. In December, the ban spreads to food providers with seating for 101 or more people. And after 18 months, the ban will apply to restaurants with 100 or fewer seats.

There’s some opposition against the plastics bans

The opposition isn’t nearly as vocal, as the mere mention of plastics and styrofoam can be polarizing, and counterarguments are overlooked. When Santa Monica’s 2008 ban went into place, GoFoam California launched an opposition campaign that recommended the expansion of polystyrene recycling centers, which then repurpose the materials into picture frames or ballpoint pens. The group also cited higher costs for small businesses forced to comply with eco-friendly laws.

The financial impact of styrofoam and plastic bans

Marginalized communities are on the financial front lines during any major policy change, and the plastic/styrofoam ban are no different. People with disabilities rely on straws. Neighborhoods with mostly fast food options will also see higher prices in the wake of these laws, and diners could potentially struggle to afford the higher cost of eating out.

And while Long Beach is thoughtfully navigating this process, these eco-friendly products are more expensive. The city implemented an incentive program with a one-time $200 to $300 reimbursement to aid during the transition, but this might not be enough to offset costs in the long-term.

Tack on the anticipated minimum wage hike, and both will likely add to higher restaurant prices. Forcing smaller restaurants to use eco-friendly and more sustainable products makes them less competitive, which could hurt their sales in the short term.

Plastic just works best sometimes

While many are on board with the plastic and styrofoam bans, there’s a contingent that simply hates paper straws. Bon Appetit outlines the sentiment in a year-old column, “In approximately 47 seconds, your straw begins to get soggier than a Huggies in a kiddie pool.”

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