South Lake Tahoe moves forward with polystyrene ban

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

The city of South Lake Tahoe is moving forward with a polystyrene ban.

At Tuesday’s meeting, City Council directed staff to draft an ordinance that bans the use of polystyrene takeout food containers at restaurants as well as the sale of foam coolers and single-use food containers at retail stores. These changes would bolster the existing city policy, which prohibits the use of polystyrene at special events.

Additionally, the proposed ordinance would limit the use of straws and plastic utensils at restaurants to an “on request” basis.

Commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam, polystyrene is a cheap, durable and light synthetic material. 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.

Marilee Movius, community engagement manager for The League to Save Lake Tahoe, told council the organization’s volunteers clean thousands of pieces of polystyrene off of beaches every year.

Though polystyrene can be recycled, it rarely is due to cleaning difficulties and its low resale value. The closest recycling facility that accepts certain polystyrene products is in West Reno.

“We do see plenty of polystyrene in the waste stream and it is notorious for its characteristics; breaking apart, littering roads and waterways, impacting wildlife and [failing] to decompose naturally. There are no good options to managing polystyrene once its intended single use is completed,” wrote Jeff Tillman, president of South Tahoe Refuse and Recycling, in a letter to the city. “We know, of course, that banning the material may have impacts on local businesses which need to be considered in the course of this discussion.”

Back in October, council considered a polystyrene ban, but ultimately directed staff to come back with more information on how the ban would impact local businesses.

A cost comparison compiled by the city found the change from polystyrene cups, plates and takeout containers to biodegradable and compostable versions would cost an additional $0.01, $0.03 and $0.08 per item, respectively.

In South Lake Tahoe, a number of restaurants voluntarily use recyclable or compostable products. Lake Tahoe Community College already uses compostable products in its culinary departments, while Lake Tahoe Unified School District implemented its own polystyrene ban several years ago.

Council will likely give a first reading of the proposed polystyrene ordinance in March to allow business owners who may be impacted by the ban to get up to speed on the changes and comment.

Mayor Wendy David said the intent is to have the revised ordinance in effect before the “summer rush” of visitors arrives.

If City Council passes the ban, South Lake Tahoe would join 114 other California cities that have enacted some form of a polystyrene restriction.

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