Restaurateurs will be watching Sacramento closely this spring for the outcome of legislation that could significantly affect their business operations.
Earlier this year, an Orange County lawmaker introduced a bill that seeks to ban food vendors from dispensing prepared food in polystyrene foam containers.
The legislation, Senate Bill 568, passed the Senate by a vote of 21-15 and was approved by the Assembly's appropriations committee before being placed on the inactive list in early September.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who introduced the bill, said he likely will bring it back up for discussion in the spring.
"I decided the climate to put it on the floor of the Assembly would be more conducive next year, when I have a chance to counter some of the late arguments that came up during the last week or two of the session," he said. "Many lobbyists were out there opposing the bill, and they were giving out misleading information.
"I think it'll pass, just like it did in the Senate, if we have open and transparent arguments and look at the real data. It's good for California businesses."
The California Restaurant Association is among several organizations opposing the bill, claiming it will cost the state thousands of manufacturing jobs and be financially burdensome for small businesses.
They say that expanded polystyrene is the best material for food packaging as it is lightweight, manages heat/cold well and is inexpensive.
"Restaurants, delis and other food vendors, if they were to go to a different product, (those products) are three to four times more expensive," said Chris Duggan, director of government affairs for the San Diego County chapter of the California Restaurant Association. "We've suppressed our prices for so long that now we're starting to see issues with commodities going up, like fuel costs."
Lowenthal, however, contends that the elimination of polystyrene won't cost as many jobs as the opponents fear. He said there are only two companies that manufacture polystyrene takeout containers for California businesses, and neither are located in the state.
He estimates only 400-500 jobs will be lost, while more than that will be gained in the manufacturing of alternative products.
"We're talking about a shift that's already occurring," Lowenthal said. "There are alternatives from destroying the only thing that California has left, which is its coast.
"And the alternative products are manufactured by California companies that make all degradable, compostable products. They grew 19 percent and hire in the thousands."
Local legislator, Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), is one of the senators who voted for the bill. She is concerned about the environmental impact of the polystyrene boxes.
"Containers are widely used, rarely recycled, and can easily find their way into coastal waters, beaches, and bays," she said in an email. "I supported the bill because it will cut down on ocean debris."
If passed, the bill isn't scheduled to take effect until Jan. 1, 2016, for restaurants and July 1, 2016, for school districts. Language in the bill also allows food vendors in a school district to continue using polystyrene if the district adopts a recycling policy for polystyrene foam food containers. There is a similar exception for restaurants as long as the city or county in which they reside adopts a recycling program for polystyrene.
According to Lowenthal, polystyrene constitutes 15 percent of that state's litter. Proponents of the ban argue that polystyrene is harmful to the ocean because it is lightweight, durable and water resistant. It also is not biodegradable but breaks into smaller pieces.
Forty-seven jurisdictions in California have already banned polystyrene food containers.
"Restaurants have gone through it, and they advertise they're green," Lowenthal said. "It's actually a great tool for them."
Lowenthal added that the market is improving for alternative products and the number of choices has made the costs come down.
"The vast majority of Los Angeles and Orange County trash winds up on my beaches," said the Long Beach legislator. "I see it every year."
Mike Morton Jr., president/CEO of the Brigantine Family of Restaurants and president of the local California Restaurant Association chapter, said if the bill becomes law it could hurt a lot of his peers in the industry.
"It is a good way to transport food," Morton said. "A lot of our smaller operators (use the polystyrene containers for hot food), and the cost to transport hot food is sizeable. You pay more for paper and plastic (alternatives)."
He also said progress has been made in making polystyrene more recyclable. It can be used for crown moldings, baseboards and other building materials, according to opponents of the bill.
"It can be manufactured into other products, which can go into restaurants, homes and buildings," Morton said.
The Brigantine, as an example, uses decorative moldings used with recycled polystyrene in its restaurants.
Duggan, the government affairs director, disputes the claim that eliminating polystyrene will reduce litter.
"We've seen in San Francisco, when you ban polystyrene, your litter stays the same or increases with paper cups," Duggan said.