Noe Valley Voice May 2007

City Acts to Stamp Out Styrofoam

By Jack Macy

Starting June 1, the food you get from your favorite take-out spot or neighborhood restaurant may be a little bit better for you and the planet. Or actually, the container will. From that day forward, a law will go into effect that requires all San Francisco restaurants and vendors selling food-to-go to package it in compostable or recyclable containers--namely, paper- or plant-based plastic or aluminum foil.

Sponsored by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, the new law was passed in order to reduce the negative environmental impact of disposable food containers, especially those made out of polystyrene foam, also known as Styrofoam. Styrofoam is made from crude oil, and is non-degradable and non-compostable. It's also not easy to recycle.

Styrofoam also breaks up into small pieces and can be ingested by animals. Birds and fish that ingest the foam can die from starvation. Even the production of Styrofoam is toxic to our environment, and studies have shown that chemicals in the foam are carcinogenic and can leach from containers into food and liquids.

And then there's the litter factor. You've probably noticed that a lot of the litter in San Francisco is made up of non-compostable, non-recyclable fast-food packaging, including Styrofoam plastic cups and clamshell containers.

Many restaurants have already switched to compostable to-go containers, which are more environmentally friendly. The white or brown paper box you're taking home these days can go in your green compostables cart when you're done with it, along with other food scraps--even meat, bones, and soiled napkins. Compostable food-service ware includes coated (but not foam-coated) and uncoated paper containers; cardboard or other natural fiber (e.g., sugarcane) products; and "bio-based" (potato or corn-resin) materials, all of which can go in your green cart. You'll want to put any aluminum foil or #2, #4, or #5 plastic tubs and lids in your blue recyclables cart.

By composting and recycling more--and thus throwing away less--you may be able to save money on your trash bill by getting a smaller black garbage cart. Call your waste hauler: Sunset Scavenger, 415-330-1300; or Golden Gate Recycling and Disposal, 415-626-4000.

The new food-service law will greatly help the city reach its goal of zero waste by 2020. San Francisco is currently at 67 percent diversion of waste from landfill. However, nearly 40 percent of what's now being thrown away is actually compostable: food, food-soiled paper products, and yard trimmings.

The city and waste haulers are partnering to make compostables collection simpler: you can call your waste hauler and request a free green kitchen pail be delivered to your home. To make collecting food scraps easier, you can purchase Biobags, a certified compostable plastic bag made from corn. For an apartment building to be included in the green cart program, a tenant or onsite manager needs to help coordinate the building's participation. To find out more about composting and recycling services, and to get a list of local stores that sell compostable bags, visit

Jack Macy is the commercial recycling coordinator for San Francisco's Environment Department. For more information, call 415-355-3700 or visit the Eco Center at 11 Grove Street.