Restaurant owner Gary Honeycutt says a push in California's state Legislature to ban the plastic foam containers he uses to serve up takeout meals could cost him thousands of dollars in an industry where profit margins already are razor thin.
BJ's Kountry Kitchen, in the heart of California's farm country, uses about 26,000 of the 9-inch foam clamshells a year, mostly for takeout by the customers who come in for the restaurant's popular breakfast omelets.
"We put cheese on those omelets. And when we put the cheese on, it's really hot and bubbly and it goes right through the biodegradable stuff," he said. He expects his costs would more than double if the state requires him to use only biodegradable cartons.
The bill by Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, would prohibit restaurants, grocery stores and other vendors from dispensing food in expanded polystyrene containers, commonly known as Styrofoam, beginning in 2016. If signed into law, the measure would make California the first to institute a statewide ban on such containers. More than 50 California cities and counties already have similar bans
The bill would exempt school districts and city and county jurisdictions if they implemented programs that recycled more than 60 percent of their foam waste.
Lowenthal said litter from the foam containers is one of the most abundant forms of debris found in city streets, sewers and beaches.
"It's not biodegradable, it's not compostable, and if it's in the water for a long time, it breaks up into small beads and lasts for thousands of years. It costs millions to clean up beaches," he said.
San Francisco banned polystyrene containers in 2007, but the city's ingrained emphasis on conservation made the switch relatively easy, said Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
"I do know that many of the restaurants had already started a transition to compostable or biodegradable containers, so it was actually not as big of a transition as people might think because it was already something that was happening within the culture here," he said.
Other jurisdictions across the country have banned Styrofoam, including Suffolk County in New York and the coastal city of Freeport, Maine.
Opponents of the bill say it fails to address the root cause of litter — the litterers themselves. Litterbugs will toss out the containers whether they're made of polystyrene or biodegradable cardboard, said Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling for Dart Container.
"At the end of the day, people that litter don't care what type of product they're littering," he said.
Dart, one of two companies in California that make the Styrofoam products, employs about 600 people in the state. The company already makes the biodegradable alternative, but the two California plants are incapable of producing anything other than the Styrofoam material.
"If you get rid of manufacturers like Dart, how do you know all the alternative materials will come from California? The reality is, they won't," he said.
The California Chamber of Commerce has labeled the measure as one of its "job-killer bills," saying it threatens manufacturing jobs while increasing costs for restaurants that will have to spend more on alternative containers.
Honeycutt estimates he will have to spend more than twice as much on biodegradable containers if he is forced to switch. Because hot food melts through the cardboard, he said his Fresno restaurant will have to use two cardboard packages for every order, driving costs up even further.
"That doesn't seem too smart," he said.
The hot food in Styrofoam containers is just one of the reasons Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy group based in Washington D.C., decided to sponsor the bill, said Miriam Gordon, the group's California state director.
While the group is worried about litter's impact on the environment, the chemicals used to manufacture the foam products also are dangerous to consumers.
"We're concerned about the public health threat. A typical foam container leaches styrene when it's in contact with heat, fats, grease or acids," Gordon said.
Styrene, a chemical used to make the foam containers, was listed as "reasonably anticipated" to be a human carcinogen in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Report on Carcinogens, issued in June. The report lists substances that are reasonably anticipated or known to put people at risk for cancer.
Yet the danger of styrene leaching out is low, said John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program, a division of the federal agency.
"The risks, in my estimation, from polystyrene are not very great," he said. "It's not worth being concerned about."
Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs at the American Chemistry Council, agreed and said concern about negative health effects "is not supported by scientific information." The group, based in Washington, D.C., is lobbying against the bill.
SB568 was approved in June by the state Senate and is being considered in the Assembly.