Polystyrene broken down on beach

Along with bird footprints, broken down polystyrene litters the sand in Manhattan Beach just north of the pier on Dec. 18, 2018. (File photo by Jacquelyne May)

Polystyrene meat trays—made from material that easily breaks apart and wreaks havoc on oceanic ecosystems, according to environmentalists—will soon be prohibited in Manhattan Beach.

For the city which is largely heralded as a local leader in environmentally-friendly legislation, the polystyrene foam was the next logical pollutant to ban after single-use plastics, latex and Mylar balloons.

So as of Jan. 1, 2020, after a delayed implementation period to allow grocers time to come up to compliance, the foam packaging will no longer be allowed in the city.

At that time, according to city staffers, grocers still unable to do away with the trays may apply for a one-year waiver which will be granted on a case-by-case basis.

But, city council’s March 6 decision to prohibit the material came after grocery industry representatives warned of "unintended consequences."

Tim James of the California Grocers’ Association, who had cautioned against a polystyrene ban at a Feb. 19 meeting, urged city officials to enact a 12-month implementation to give grocers time.

“It’s not simple to just go swap out all products at all times to a single piece of packaging,” James said at the March 6 meeting, “At the same time, there’s still a lot of products that we are still working with our industry suppliers on.”   

Some local stores are already using alternatives, including recyclable plastic, according to Dana Murray, the city’s environmental sustainability manager.

She also noted cities such as Malibu, with a polystyrene ban in place, also offers waivers to give grocers time to find alternatives.

Murray said Manhattan Beach city staff reached out to local grocers in January explaining to meat and store managers that the city was considering a polystyrene meat tray ban.

“Many of those managers then pointed to alternatives that they were using in their stores as evidence that, yeah, if corporate told us to do it, we could comply,” said Murray.

City staffers and council members, including Richard Montgomery and David Lesser, recently met with representatives from Ralphs and Gelson’s to understand what James termed "the complexities" of the issue.

“Just to talk about the tour at Ralphs—one of the first questions of why you couldn’t just make the switch—it doesn’t work that way,” Montgomery said March 6. “They’re trading one harmful trash for another.”

Montgomery urged a delayed implementation was necessary for local businesses to get up to speed on the ban, although Lesser said the switch is definitely doable.

“It’s not as difficult to transition as I first thought,” he said.

Local environmentalists think the city’s ban is important in the fight against pollution.

“Manhattan Beach has really been a beacon for environmental policy for a lot of the cities of LA County,” said Emily Parker, the coastal and marine scientist for Heal the Bay.

“I am both hoping and predicting that this ban is going to influence a lot of other cities around here and that we’ll start seeing a lot less polystyrene meat trays in our grocery stores all throughout LA County.”

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