By Melody Hanatani
Daily Press Staff Writer
CITYWIDE The countdown has begun for Santa Monica eateries to begin phasing out their inventory of plastic and Styrofoam containers, environmental demons that will be banished under a new municipal code that takes effect in more than a week. In January 2007, the City Council passed an ordinance that would prohibit the use of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) and non-recyclable plastic to-go containers from restaurants and City Hall-managed facilities. While the latter category was forced into compliance last February, restaurants were given a year to make the switch.
Now, with the Feb. 9 deadline looming, there’s a sense of urgency among some of the restaurateurs who have yet to purchase the eco-friendly boxes. A restaurant that violates the law will receive a written warning on the first offense. A second offense results in a fine of up to $100, and a third offense, and any following violations, results in a daily fine of $250.
While many businesses have already switched over to containers made from biodegradable or recyclable materials, other are still relying on the plastics while they decide which product to purchase, weighing in factors like economic impact and durability.
One of the businesses that have yet to switch is the Stop n’ Cafe on the Third Street Promenade, which still uses mainly clear plastic but some Styrofoam containers.
Owner Michael Yermian said he was caught between several distributors but is struggling with pricing, afraid that the cost might be passed on to the prices on his menu.
“It is very expensive,” Yermian said on Wednesday about biodegradable products.
The Greek restaurant owner estimates that the new containers will cost three times more than what he currently purchases.
“Because our food is not expensive,
50 cents more for a container is a lot,” Yermian said.
In the final week and a half before the ban goes live, city staff in the Environmental Programs Division (EPD) have been busy helping business owners slowly come into compliance with the new regulations, educating them on the different options available, whether it be clear containers made from sugar canes or compostable paper cups.
EPD staff set up booths at the Santa Monica Public Library on Tuesday night and at the Wednesday morning Downtown Farmers’ Market, showing business owners examples of compliant products and providing them with a list of distributors.
“There’s been enough connection in the community so they should know about the ordinance,” said Josephine Miller, an environmental analyst with EPD. “Will it work? We’ll see. Will there be resistance to the price? I’m sure some will be.”
Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic containers together comprise the largest amount of waste that ends up in the Santa Monica Bay.
A good chunk of Santa Monica businesses have already been in compliance for the past several months, establishments like Border Grill in Fritto Misto in Downtown Santa Monica.
Fritto Misto switched shortly after the ordinance was first introduced, said general manager Melinda Amaya.
The Italian restaurant previously used Styrofoam for soup and salsa containers and are now using recyclable containers.
For Amaya, the biggest concern with the new regulations is to find an affordable product that would keep the food at a safe temperature.
“We’re very careful about wasting and it’s working out fine for us,” Amaya said.
Border Grill, a Mexican restaurant on Fourth Street, switched over last fall, using compostable paper cups and to-go containers and compostable cutlery made from potato starch. The restaurant still has some clear plastic containers left.
“We do have a lot of deliveries and catering so we had a lot of products in house for those kind of events,” said Courtenay Wendell, the general manager of Border Grill.
She estimates that the “green” containers are significantly more expensive than Styrofoam, approximately 30 percent more.
But the demand now will lead to better selection later, she said.
“It’s important to have those moments of inconvenience,” to help drive demand, Wendell said. “Santa Monica is pushing people to say you’re going to have to use these products.”
The ordinance has also caused food wholesale distributors like Santa Monica-based Giancola Brothers to reexamine its inventory.
Jennifer Giancola, whose grandfather started the whole sale grocery and restaurant supply company 57 years ago, is working on making recyclable and biodegradable products available to their customers in Santa Monica. The challenge for the company is meeting the needs of their customers in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, the latter of whom is not affected by the ban and might want to continue using Styrofoam and plastic containers, Giancola said.
“There’s a lot of change and we’re excited, but there’s been a lot of turmoil,” Giancola said at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Wednesday.
The company so far offers few recycled products and are trying to gauge what their customer base in Santa Monica needs, Giancola said, adding that there has been little interest in some of the more expensive products made out of sugar cane.
“We’re trying to be economical and meet the needs of the city,” Giancola said. “I like that it’s about the environment, but there has to be a balance with saving the businesses.”
For some businesses, the ordinance will have no impact whatsoever.
Restaurants like Zabies Neighborhood Cafe in Sunset Park, Euphoria Loves Rawvolution and Library Alehouse on Main Street, have used only environmentally friendly containers for years.
Janabai Amsden, who owns Euphoria in Ocean Park, said she has only used biodegradable containers since opening her restaurant.
The restaurant, which along with Library Alehouse is certified as a green business by Sustainable Works, said it’s not much more expensive to use biodegradable products, adding that it’s pennies per item.
“If you’re not actively trying to help the environment with (green) practices, you’re destroying it,” Amsden said. “The restaurant industry is probably the most wasteful … and the most prevalent because everyone eats and usually eats two to three times a day.”