Small Businesses Threatened by Potential Plastic Ban

On the corner of my block in Oakland sits a small eatery serving everything from donuts to Chinese food to barbecue. Its large picture windows with faded lettering tells you its age and the loyal following of customers it enjoys. Its status is all the more remarkable considering that a new shopping center with chains and restaurants is bustling with customers just two blocks down. The struggle to remain solvent in a changing neighborhood would only worsen if state legislation to ban polystyrene foam returns for a third year in a row. Adding to the burden of small business with the proposed ban is especially senseless when food container alternatives are on the rise organically.

Polystyrene containersThis small eatery was beating the odds against small businesses. It worked around Oakland’s $13.23 minimum wage by using its own labor and closing for a day or two per week. It survived possible rent hikes and attractive buyout offers for its storefront located on a major bus line and blocks from other transit options. Even more, its product stood out amidst a sea of assembly line food options. It was comfort food so conveniently located that even new residents like myself couldn’t resist. They piled the food high in white polystyrene containers that would keep it hot, no matter the walk or bus ride home.

Currently, 116 cities and counties in California enforce some type of polystyrene ban. The patchwork of municipalities that have banned polystyrene range in their scope. Some bans are for government organizations only; others have provisions to ease small businesses into the ban. There’s even a current ban in Oakland, with an exemption for small businesses or anyone who can prove that the requirements to provide a compostable food container item “would cause undue hardship.” However, this exemption isn’t as kind as it may sound, seeing as the steps to prove undue hardship are themselves imposing undue hardship. Owners have to produce financial records and anything else the city requires, taking additional time away from their business to prove their case to officials.

The bans, like the one in Oakland, typically require compostable or recyclable containers in place of polystyrene. Aside from the fact that polystyrene is recyclable in many municipalities, requiring compostable containers by law is enforcing behavior that is already being adopted by the restaurant industry without pressure from government. Large companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle serve their take-out food in compostable containers and have been before most bans were in place. They have taken advantage of their own economies of scale to absorb the additional cost. It is an advantage that makes them forerunners in purchasing first-run compostable products. In turn, compostable product companies develop newer and better products that lower in price over time.

With larger corporations leading the way next to municipal bans, further legislation, especially at the state level, would target the one area of a restaurant’s business that helps keep razor-thin margins from disappearing completely. The most recent failed legislation in the California state Legislature, Senate Bill 705, would have banned polystyrene food containers for restaurants, food trucks and grocery stores. By failing to exempt corner eateries and family-owned bodegas, SB 705, if passed into law, would unfairly punish these restaurants for using  polystyrene food containers and put them at a competitive disadvantage relative to large food vendors.

If anti-polystyrene legislation returns to Sacramento, it would be yet another hit to small businesses. Large corporations already set the example for non-polystyrene food container use while compostable options continue to grow. An outright ban is a solution to a problem that continues to shrink and a blow to the small businesses surviving in an era of increased regulation.

Those interested in cutting waste from landfills or the use of plastic in general would be better off campaigning for better recycling options for high volume polystyrene users and encouraging compostable options. They are much better options than supporting policy that unintentionally harms small restaurants woven into the fabric of communities across the state.

Martha Ekdahl is a Young Voices Advocate who writes about urban policy.

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