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Frequently Asked Questions About the City's Polystyrene Foam and Single Use Plastics Ordinance

Why do we need a polystyrene foam and single use plastics ordinance? 

Polystyrene foam products are typically used briefly before being discarded, and due to their light weight can easily become litter. Polystyrene foam litter breaks into small pieces which do not biodegrade and often end up in streets, canyons, waterways, storm drains, and eventually the ocean, where it harms wildlife that mistakenly ingests it.

Plastic straws are a significant contributor to marine pollution and are among the most common forms of litter collected on California beaches. 

The polystyrene foam and single use plastics ordinance will help San Diego reach its Zero Waste goals and help maintain clean and beautiful beaches and public spaces.

Who has to follow the new law?

All people and businesses within the City of San Diego are prohibited from distributing polystyrene products, and from using them at City facilities, including at special events.

All food vendors within the City of San Diego must comply with the straw and utensil provisions of the ordinance.  This includes retail establishments that sell prepared food for consumption, including from a food cart, vehicle, or mobile unit.

When does the ordinance go into effect?

The straw and utensil provisions and the ban on the distribution of coolers, ice chests, pool and beach toys, dock floats, mooring buoys, and anchor or navigation markers go into effect on February 23, 2019. These polystyrene foam items, as well as polystyrene foam egg cartons, food trays, and food service ware, are also prohibited from City facilities (including special events) after this date.

The ban on polystyrene foam food service ware, food trays, and egg cartons takes effect May 24, 2019. 

Individuals or entities with a gross income of less than $500,000 on the individual or entity’s federal income tax filing for the most recent tax year are exempt from compliance with the ordinance until February 23, 2020. However, this exemption does not apply at City facilities, including special events and any city property such as buildings, parks, beaches, or streets.

aluminum container

Why are some alternatives to polystyrene foam products preferable to others?

The most preferred alternative products are those that reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill. Reusable service ware is the most preferred type of alternative product because it is not disposable and does not generate any waste going to the landfill.

Other preferred alternative products are those made from recyclable materials, specifically paper (uncoated or clay coated), aluminum (not paper-lined), or plastic. These materials may be recycled in the San Diego region if they are clean and free of food.

Non-preferred, but acceptable, alternative products are those that must be disposed of in the landfill. Although these non-preferred products are not recommended, they are not regulated under the ordinance and you will not receive a citation for distributing them. Non-preferred products include paper coated with materials other than clay (i.e. poly, Polylactic Acid (PLA) or other materials) and products typically marketed as “compostable” or “biodegradable.” Examples of these materials include, but are not limited to, “compostable” and “biodegradable” labeled plastic, sugarcane, bagasse, bamboo, molded fiber, and other similar items. All of these types of products must be placed in the trash and will go to the landfill.

Why do compostable plastic alternatives have to be placed in the trash?

Compostable plastic (or bioplastic) food service ware is a potential contaminant in both the recycling and yard waste recycling streams in the City. Compostable plastics look very similar to conventional petroleum-based plastics, and can mistakenly be placed in blue recycling bins, which then contaminates the recyclability of the plastics.  Additionally, no widely available composting option currently exists in the San Diego Region that accepts compostable food service ware.  The City’s Miramar Greenery does not have the capacity to accept compostable food service ware, and the compostability of those products varies widely.

Where can I purchase alternative food service ware products?

Ask your current supplier about their products that meet the City’s new requirements.  You may also check these other cities’ lists of alternative products, but make sure each item meets the City of San Diego’s alternative product criteria:

Can businesses still provide plastic straws and utensils to customers?

Plastic or bioplastic straws and utensils may only be made available upon the request of the customer. The ordinance does not prohibit asking the customer if they would like to be given a straw or utensils. It is also acceptable to provide straws and utensils in self-serve containers in a central location. The goal of the ordinance is to prevent straws and utensils from being given to customers who do not want or need them.

What are the exceptions to the requirements?

It is not a violation of the ordinance to distribute prepared food on polystyrene foam trays for consumption if the prepared food has been packaged outside of the City and is provided to the customer as originally packaged. Waivers are available for the food service ware and food trays provisions for entities that can demonstrate 1) a feasibility-based hardship, 2) a financial-based hardship, or 3) an existing contractual requirement. 

How will the new law be enforced?

The Environmental Services Department is responsible for enforcement of the ordinance. The Department is committed to educating businesses of the ordinance and how to comply.  Penalties for non-compliance will be issued as a last resort and may result in fines.

Coffee MugWhat else can my business do to reduce food service ware waste?

  • Allow customers to bring their own mugs to buy drinks and their own containers for takeout food or leftovers. You can even provide educational materials and incentives.
  • Use durable, reusable dishware and utensils instead of disposable ones for eat-in customers.
  • Provide condiments in bulk dispensers instead of single-use packets.

PDF icon Polystyrene Foam and Single Use Plastics Ordinance (English/Spanish flyer)

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