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Heal the Bay Blog

Category: Polystyrene

Santa Monica often sets the stage for the rest of Southern California when it comes to curbing consumer practices that trash our oceans and neighborhoods.

In 2007, the Santa Monica City Council passed its first ordinance regulating the use of polystyrene, the type of foam typically used in fast-food and drink packaging that has become such an eyesore on our local beaches and neighborhoods.

Today, 110 municipalities in California have passed some type of legislation on the use of polystyrene.  Progressive cities like San Francisco, Malibu and Manhattan Beach have comprehensive bans that include retail sales, coolers and ice chests.

polystyrene ban

Last night, the City Council approved modifications to the City’s earlier ordinance on polystyrene, extending protections that will reduce blight and save marine life.

The new rules extend the existing polystyrene ban to include Food Service Ware (plates, bowls, utensils, cups, straws, and more) and prohibiting bio-plastic #7 and plastics #1-5. They also encourage alternatives such as paper, fiber, bagasse and wood for takeaway packaging.  They also require that takeaway straws and utensils only be made available to customers on a request-only basis, and that they be “marine degradable.”  There are exceptions for people with medical conditions for the use of straws.

These modifications are crucial if we are to systematically reduce plastic pollution in our communities and oceans.  In the last 18 years, Heal the Bay volunteers have removed over 736,000 pieces of plastic foam trash from L.A. beaches.  The harmful flow of single-use plastic foam is a constant threat to marine animals, wildlife and habitats.

And this pollution problem is only growing.  Of the more than 375,000 tons of polystyrene (plastic foam) produced in California each year, not even 1% gets recycled.  The rest ends up in our landfills, waterways and the ocean.

The new rules will help the city achieve its Zero Waste goals by 2030 — through diversion, composting, and recycling.

Nearly 30 people, ranging in age from 3 to 70 years old, spoke in support of the changes. Our policy leaders Katherine Pease and Mary Luna led the Heal the Bay contingent.  Councilmembers seemed enthusiastic during public testimony and wanted to learn more about how the City staff could work with businesses to facilitate transitioning polystyrene out of use.

Beginning January 1, 2019, vendors are not allowed to provide containers made out of polystyrene #6, or from other plastics #1-5; all containers need to be made out of materials like paper, wood, and fiber that meet the definition of marine degradable.

After that date, any business in Santa Monica serving food or drinks in containers labeled #1-6 would not be in compliance with this polystyrene ordinance, and the public may choose to educate them about the ordinance, or to file a report with the City’s Code Enforcement division to ensure compliance.

The definition of marine degradable is included in the ordinance language, specifying that products must degrade completely in marine waters or marine sediments in fewer than 120 days. Products predominantly made with plastics, either petroleum or biologically based, are not considered marine degradable.

Heal the Bay staff and our partners asked the Council to strengthen the ordinance by adding polystyrene items to the prohibited list, such as retail sales (e.g. packing materials, foam coolers) and grocery items (e.g. food trays, egg cartons).  The Council did add beverage lids to the list of items that need to be marine degradable.

The Council expressed interest in including retail sales and grocery items, but ultimately said the new ordinance isn’t the place for action.  Members instead directed staff to look at prohibition of polystyrene retail sales and come back with recommendations.  They also directed staff to look into possible charges for take-away containers (like the 10-cent charge for single-use plastic bags), and incentives for businesses to move more quickly to sustainable packaging.

The Santa Monica City Council showed great leadership last night by adopting the ordinance and continuing the conversation about how to strengthen it further.  We commend the efforts of city staff and councilmembers and look forward to working with the public to implement and build upon this important action.



Since 1985, we’ve partnered with people like you – volunteers, donors and advocates — to make Southern California safer, healthier and cleaner. And 2018 will prove no different.

As another year closes we’ve been reflecting on all our wins in 2017. But now we look ahead to this New Year. We’ll be hosting cleanups, educating kids at our Aquarium and monitoring beaches and watersheds statewide as we do year in and year out. We’ve got bigger plans, too.

Here’s a snapshot look at our Big Three policy goals in 2018, encompassing our three impact pillars – Thriving Oceans, Healthy Watersheds and Smart Water.

1. Parting With Polystyrene

polystyrene ban

Action Item: Enact a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers in the City and County of Los Angeles.

Following the model that propelled the statewide plastic bag ban in 2014, we are fighting to rid our beaches and neighborhoods of polystyrene trash.

We don’t want to live in a nanny state, with a long list of prohibited items and activities. But sometimes enough is enough. Our volunteers have removed more than 500,000 bits of Styrofoam™ from beaches in L.A. County over the past decade1. These discarded fragments of takeout-food packaging and cups are not only unsightly – they’re also downright dangerous to marine life and our health.

Recycling isn’t the answer, as polystyrene food and drink containers suffer from low quality and value. More than 100 California cities have implemented all-out bans. But we need a statewide solution, as with plastic bags. Sacramento legislators likely won’t act until the state’s biggest city acts.


2. Saving Stormwater

Action Item: Get L.A. County voters to approve a funding measure for stormwater capture projects.

When it rains, we create terrible waste in Southern California. First, billions of gallons of polluted runoff are sent uselessly to the sea. Second, we fail to capture and reuse that water to replenish our depleted aquifers.

We import 80% of our water in L.A. – at great risk and cost. It’s simply madness not to reuse the water that nature provides. The County of L.A. already does a fairly good job of capturing stormwater – about 200,000 acre feet each year. But we need to at least double that amount.

Engineers have created detailed plans for multi-benefit, green projects throughout the county – think smart parks, green streets and the like. We can transform the region from a concrete bowl into a giant sponge. But in a time of tight government budgets, finding the funding is tough. In the November election, voters will decide whether to support a tax to reduce pollution and increase water reliability.


3. Revitalizing the River

Action Item: Advocate for strong water-quality and habitat protections in the County’s upcoming L.A. River Master Plan.

Heal the Bay recently released an eye-opening study of water quality that showed that bacterial pollution continues to plague the L.A. River. Our scientific report demonstrated that popular recreation zones suffer from poor water quality. Fecal bacteria pose health risks for the growing number of people fishing, swimming and kayaking its waters.

We’re excited about all the great things happening on the River these days, spurred by a $1 billion revitalization plan. We love that more Angelenos are getting on the water. We just want to make sure people stay safe and are informed about pollution.


Our work isn’t possible without the real passion, action and commitment from people like you. Help us spark more positive change in our region, up and down the coast, and around the world. Help us hit the ground running this year by making a donation today.

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1. Source: Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database (12/1/2007-12/1/2017). Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database is an online record of trash and other debris that has been picked up by schools, companies, and other volunteers as part of Heal the Bay’s various beach cleanup programs.



UPDATE: On May 8, Culver City’s City Council voted unanimously to adopt the single-use polystyrene ban. The ban goes into effect on November 8, 2017.


Earlier this week, the City of Culver City took the first step to join other local municipalities to pass a ban on two types of plastics which wreak havoc on marine life and are often used by food providers: polystyrene foam (commonly known as Stryofoam™) and oriented polystyrene.

Polystyrene foam is frequently used in take-out food packaging like cups and to-go boxes. It’s very lightweight and often flies away from trash bins and landfills. Oriented polystyrene (aka solid polystyrene) is used to make items like utensils, lids and food packaging.

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Polystyrene is seldom recycled due to its low quality and value, even though it’s designated with recycling code 6.

As a result, both types of polystyrene are ubiquitous at beach and watershed cleanups. According to Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database, our volunteers have picked up 504,832 Styrofoam™ items from beaches in L.A. County in the last 10 years. Banning these specific plastics is a big win for our coastal environment, especially considering Culver City is situated within the watershed of Ballona Creek and its downstream wetland habitat.

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Santa Monica started banning polystyrene ten years ago, and there continues to be talk of a ban on a state-wide level. But now Culver City has the bragging rights. This local municipality courageously chose to adopt some of the most stringent policies in the area by banning polystyrene coffee lids and straws from businesses as well.

The Culver City ban will begin on November 8, 2017, giving local businesses time to run through their current stock and prepare for the changes. According to the Culver City ordinance, no food provider shall use, distribute, or sell any single-use foam polystyrene or polystyrene service ware, denoted by recycling identification code 6 (PS).

In an additional and welcome caveat to the ordinance, Culver City businesses now must first ask if you want cutlery before simply throwing in plastic utensils with your take-out food. This idea works hand in hand with Heal the Bay’s Rethink the Drink campaign—coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

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Ballona Creek Renaissance lead the charge on this effort, with multiple Surfrider chapters reliably showing up in force over the nearly year-long endeavor. Our own Gnarly Beach Cleaner, Michael Doshi, was consistently there for the countless council and sustainability sub-committee meetings, while recent Heal the Bay Super Healer award winner, environmental science educator, and Team Marine leader at Santa Monica High School Benjamin Kay was present to seal the deal on Tuesday, April 11 right before midnight.

If there was one loser in this endeavor it would have to be impromptu beach parties.  Starting in November, “No [Culver] City business shall sell polystyrene coolers.” So in light of this, Heal the Bay recommends you simply do not procrastinate in the planning of those.

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