Senate Committee to Consider Ban on Disposable Fast-Food Containers Today

(April 3, 2013) A California Chamber of Commerce-opposed “job killer” bill that places an unworkable ban on disposable food services containers and single-use carryout bags, unless fast food restaurants can meet aggressive, tiered recycling targets, will be heard in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee today.

SB 529 (Leno; D-San Francisco) mandates that specified “fast food facilities” provide customers only with disposable food service packaging or single use bags that are either “compostable” or “recyclable.”

These terms are defined as packaging that must be both

  1. accepted back at the fast food facility for composting; and
  2. accepted for composting in a local curbside collection program available to at least 75% of residents in that jurisdiction.

The bill also establishes tiered composting and recycling targets for these materials of 25%, 50% and 75% between 2016 and 2020.

Unrealistic/Overly Burdensome

The on-site composting/recycling provision is unrealistic and overly burdensome. Requiring food establishments to maintain on-site composting or recycling collection systems for food packaging raises several concerns. Soiled food containers would presumably have to be stored on-site, providing a ripe environment for rodents, ants, flies and other undesirable elements, all of which threaten the sanitary conditions required at food establishments.

Space availability will also undoubtedly fluctuate depending on the location of the facility. Some establishments may have back alley space for separate collection systems, while others – such as those in urban areas – may not. In those cases, these food facilities would not be able to meet the requirements of this bill and therefore would not be able to provide customers with any disposable packaging.

Patchwork of Programs

The current patchwork of recycling and composting programs hinders employers’ ability to comply. Recycling and composting programs are created and implemented on a local basis. There is no uniform curbside composting or recycling collection program statewide.
For example, materials that are collected in the Los Angeles curbside residential program are likely to be different than those collected in a recycling program implemented in Bakersfield, Redding, or Chula Vista. Compounding this situation is the fact that restaurants and/or packaging manufacturers have little or no control over what materials are accepted for composting or recycling in a local jurisdiction. These programs are created via contracts between waste haulers and the local jurisdiction. It would appear that under SB 529 a restaurant would not be able to offer any sort of disposable packaging to its customers.

Recycling/Compositing Targets Unrealistic

Although the regulated community appreciates a phased-in approach to establishing recycling and composting targets, it is unrealistic to believe the targets required in this bill can be reached within the specified timeframes.

The CalChamber believes any identified numeric recycling or composting mandate must be crafted in a tiered approach that is reasonable, allows adequate implementation time, and is based on a scientifically derived baseline set of data in order to achieve real and measurable trash reduction results. While the goal of increasing recycling and waste diversion is laudable, the actual implementation of these programs, especially for food service packaging, is quite complex.

Packaging can be made from a variety of materials (plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, etc.). In virtually all cases, packaging that is significantly “contaminated” with food poses a significant recycling challenge – regardless of the material type.

While the market for compostable containers is growing, the infrastructure to actually compost these materials is limited. It is important to note that bio-based containers “degrade” only in a controlled composting environment – essentially a large industrial facility where temperatures can exceed 140 degrees for several days. These containers do not degrade if littered alongside the road or deposited into a trash can, nor will they degrade if they make their way into a storm drain or other waterway.

Uniform Standards Needed

Uniform statewide standards are necessary. It would be overly burdensome for restaurants to navigate a patchwork of regulations on packaging that would vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Under SB 529 as drafted, a restaurant on one side of the street would be subject to different packaging requirements than an adjacent restaurant just down the street.

If the Legislature is intending to enact a bill governing food packaging, a statewide mandate must include language pre-empting local governments from enacting additional, separate or conflicting requirements. Furthermore, the Legislature first needs focus on developing adequate infrastructure statewide to implement programs like the one proposed here.

Absent that infrastructure, the goals of this bill cannot be achieved.