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Arroyo Grande and Morro Bay ban expanded polystyrene foam 

Both Arroyo Grande and Morro Bay recently took the first step to ban the use of expanded polystyrene foam in their cities.

They considered the new ordinances on Jan. 26 as part of a packaged proposal from local environmental groups that advocate against the use of expanded polystyrene foam, often called EPS or “Styrofoam” after one popular brand that makes it.

The bans will bar the use and sale of any expanded polystyrene products including cups, to-go food containers, or disposable coolers. Its use will still be permitted for packaged goods produced outside of the cities and as trays for raw meat, fish, or other raw foods at the store. San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach have already banned EPS.

Environmentalists advocating for the bans say that expanded polystyrene, which takes a very long time to break down, is toxic to the environment and is especially dangerous to wildlife if it gets into the watershed or greater ecosystem. 

Many businesses, especially restaurants and food vendors that sell a substantial amount of to-go food, prefer EPS containers over other materials because it’s generally the cheapest option, is lightweight, and is an efficient insulator.

Janeen Burlingame, a management analyst for Morro Bay, estimated that alternative packaging products generally cost anywhere from 20 percent less to 50 percent more. Clamshell food containers made of other materials like paper or plastic can cost 59 to 73 percent more, she said. Morro Bay Public Works Director Rob Livick added that while those percentages might seem high, the difference is only a few cents per package.

While the city didn’t hear much public opposition during its meeting, business owners have expressed some concern that the ban might mean increased operating costs.

“Let’s remember, those numbers are serious numbers for a business,” said Morro Bay resident Ken MacNamara.

Both bans will not immediately go into effect in order to give businesses time to switch to another product and to use whatever EPS they have stockpiled. The ordinances also include a hardship exemption, which can give a business owner an extended period of time to make the switch if that process is a significant financial burden to their business.

The Morro Bay City Council unanimously passed the ordinance, which will become active on May 1. City staff initially recommended that the ban take effect at a later date, and the Morro Bay Public Works Advisory Committee then recommended the ban be enacted in May, before the onset of the city’s busy tourist season.

The Arroyo Grande City Council voted 4-1 to pass the ban, with Mayor Pro-Tem Barbara Harmon dissenting. That ban will go into effect six months after the ordinance goes into effect.

Both city ordinances will require a second reading at their respective Feb. 9 meetings, and if finalized at those meetings, will go into effect 30 days later.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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