Upgrade Our Take-Out Containers or Protect Business? San Diego Can Do Both

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By Phil Blair, Executive Officer at Manpower and Laurie Britton, Owner of Café Virtuoso

It’s no surprise that our daily routines as a café owner and an executive for one of San Diego’s largest employers are pretty different. However, the two of us – Laurie Britton of Café Virtuoso and Phil Blair of Manpower Staffing – stand together in our belief that great local leaders strive to do right by business owners and their customers. By limiting harmful single-use food containers in our restaurants, it is possible for San Diego’s City Council to support healthy business and a healthy community all at once.

With our combined experience — advising on successful business strategies, and transitioning a café to more sustainable products – we know how a well-planned move away from single-use plastics helps business owners keep profit margins healthy and customers happy.

The products in question are single-use plastics, especially those made of polystyrene foam. Polystyrene foam products include what we often call Styrofoam – commonly used to make the food containers you see in restaurants. There’s no question that these products are harmful to our coastline and our customers. The Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego Chapter reported that in 2017 alone, volunteers collected 12,575 pieces of polystyrene from San Diego County beaches. Polystyrene is made from styrene, a known animal carcinogen that was found “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program.

To combat these and other risks, the City of San Diego has committed to reaching “zero waste” by 2040. So, how will we get there? Our community has already learned that efforts to recycle polystyrene foam products such as Styrofoam are not the answer. It’s clear that in order to reach our goal by 2040, we must take action now.

Enter: The ordinance to limit certain single-use plastics, proposed by Councilmember Chris Ward. The proposed ordinance offers good news for small businesses looking to keep supply costs affordable while serving our hungry customers. Instead of simply banning single-use plastic products without options or recourse, the ordinance creates a pathway for restaurant owners to transition to better products with the support of the City, fellow businesses and our customers.

Under the ordinance, polystyrene foam products would be banned while plastic utensils and straws will be available to customers only upon request. The best part is that business owners would not have to navigate this change on their own. The ordinance requires that the City support businesses through the transition to more sustainable products. For example, San Diego’s Environmental Services Department will provide information on more cost-effective products. In addition, any small businesses that would experience financial hardship as a result of the ordinance may receive two-year waivers as they move incrementally toward better products. It is even possible to give customers a choice to pay an additional cost for the convenience of single-use products. This is especially helpful because owners like Laurie have noted that when given a choice, customers often opt for a sustainable option.

By working through this process to limit harmful products together, our restaurant community can move toward a more level playing field for us all. Because this ordinance means that all businesses must transition to more sustainable products eventually, those alternative products will gradually become the norm. We will be able to continue business as usual without any worries about competitors gaining some small advantage by using cheaper but harmful products.

We will both continue to join our voices with Councilmembers Ward and Bry, Business for Good, the Surfrider Foundation San DiegoSan Diego CoastkeeperClimate Action Campaign and many others in urging the City of San Diego to approve this ordinance as a roadmap to a healthier future for businesses and customers alike.

On October 15, we will be encouraging City Council to adopt this ordinance to support businesses as they transition to products that keep our community and environment healthy. We hope that every resident with a favorite San Diego coffee shop or taco spot will stand with us and add their name to Surfrider Foundation’s Fight The Foam petition at fightthefoam.org.

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