City of South Lake Tahoe considers Styrofoam ban

Claire Cudahy
The City of South Lake Tahoe is considering a Styrofoam ban.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Gone may be the days of steaming Styrofoam containers keeping that take-out Pad Thai warm.

South Lake Tahoe City Council is again considering varying degrees of a polystyrene ban — often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam — in restaurants and other retail stores.

Polystyrene is a cheap, durable and light synthetic material used to make everything from packing peanuts to take-out food containers. Environmentalists have long criticized polystyrene for its lengthy lifetime in landfills and its breakability, which results in small pieces finding their way into the environment and the stomachs of wildlife.

Back in 2013, City Council discussed banning single-use plastic bags and polystyrene at retail establishments within the city. Though the city moved forward with a ban on plastic single-use carryout bags — later bolstered by a statewide ban on plastic bags — no action was taken to prohibit polystyrene.

At the Oct. 17 council meeting, following councilmember direction, city staff brought forward the different tiers of a polystyrene ban for discussion. These tiers range from a ban that only eliminates polystyrene take-out food containers to one that prohibits the sale of products packaged with polystyrene outside of the city, like egg cartons and meat at grocery stores.

Council requested staff bring back more information on how the various tiers might impact local businesses.

“I just want to make sure we look hard at unintended consequences,” said councilmember Tom Davis.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe spoke out in support of a ban.

“This year alone we hosted 17 organized cleanup efforts and just with polystyrene, which is expanded foam, we found 2,000 pieces,” said Marilee Movius, community engagement manager for the League. “This does not include other plastics that we also found, which is over 16,000 pieces.”

Movius also noted that polystyrene is considered the fifth largest source of hazardous waste in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency.

American Chemistry Council, an industry trade company for chemical companies, wrote in to council to object to any sort of ban.

“This ordinance falsely assumes that banning one type of food packaging material will result in a reduction in litter; overlooks many environmental benefits associated with polystyrene food service containers; [and] incorrectly assumes biodegradable or compostable alternatives have a lower footprint on the environment,” wrote Tim Shestek, senior director of State Affairs for American Chemistry Council.

Shestek also asserted that any ban would impose higher operating costs on restaurants, especially smaller businesses — an opinion shared by the California Restaurant Association.

“I’ve seen those estimates in the tens of thousands of dollars per year per restaurant,” said Sharokina Shams, vice president of publication affairs for the association.

The Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce’s restaurant industry group is meeting today to discuss their position on the polystyrene ban, according to facilitator Emily Abernathy.

“People don’t always know this but polystyrene is actually a recyclable product. So we find that recycling it rather than having a product-by-product ban is a better way to remove litter from numerous kinds of waterways,” continued Shams.

Though polystyrene can be recycled, it rarely is; most municipal recycling plants don’t accept it because it’s bulky, difficult to clean and has a low resale value. For South Lake Tahoe, the closest plant that accepts recycled polystyrene is ACH Foam Technologies located in West Reno. It’s the only recycling center of its kind in the region — and it only accepts polystyrene that is used in packaging, not food service.

South Tahoe Refuse and Recycling Service, the garbage collection service for the South Shore, is still in the process of formulating a statement to issue to City Council on the ban, according to its administration.

Over 100 cities have enacted polystyrene bans around the country, including Seattle, Portland and New York City. Across California there is a hodgepodge of different local polystyrene restrictions. In Santa Monica, only food service containers are banned, while in San Francisco, the ban extends to products like foam coolers.

Instead of a ban, San Diego recently opted to institute curbside recycling pickup for polystyrene food and beverage containers at single-family homes. It will cost the city $90,000 a year, which will come out of the $3.3 million in yearly revenue it collects from residents recycling other items like glass bottles and aluminum cans.

South Lake Tahoe City Council will revisit the topic of the polystyrene ban at a future meeting. In the meantime, a survey ( is circulating to gather community input.

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