A stack of foam to-go boxes sit atop a trash can.

Putting a Fork In It

Putting a Fork In It 1024 576 Los Angeles County

Putting a Fork In It

Here’s an FAQ look into the County’s upcoming measure to eliminate single-use plastics at local restaurants

Los Angeles County creates nearly 30 million tons of waste each year, with plastic the greatest contributor to our wastestream by item. To begin addressing the negative effects of plastic pollution in our region, the County of Los Angeles is considering an ordinance to reduce single use plastic in unincorporated areas.

The proposed policy would phase out the distribution of disposable food serviceware that is not compostable or recyclable. The ordinance would reduce blight, lessen our dependence on harmful fossil fuels and improve public health. It would also benefit aquatic ecosystems and other open spaces.

The measure would provide time for food-serving businesses to transition to alternative products and support the use of reusables, and focus on information sharing and education. 

What does the proposed ordinance entail?

  • Phases out the use of disposable food service ware that is not compostable or recyclable. This includes all plastic items and compostable products that don’t meet certification requirements
  • Phases out the sale or rental of expanded polystyrene (foam) products such as: single use food service ware (unless products are encased in a durable material), coolers, packaging and peanuts, and pool toys 
  • Requires that full-service restaurants use reusable food service ware for dine-in customers

How will it be enforced? 

Enforcement will initially be complaint-based, prioritizing education and working with businesses to transition to sustainable, takeout food ware. After the first year of implementation, the County will evaluate whether additional measures are needed to support businesses to reduce single-use waste. As a last resort in instances where this approach does not work, violations may be subject to fines up to $100 per day per violation up to a maximum of $1000 per year. Food facilities operating in a permanent location will have a year to reach compliance, food trucks will have eighteen months to reach compliance, and temporary food providers like farmers markets or community event organizers will have two years.

Are there any exemptions?

Yes, street vendors will be exempt. Restaurants that demonstrate extreme financial hardship or the inability to serve food products safely in alternative packaging can also apply for waivers from the ordinance requirements.

How is the County working to ensure that the new measure does not place even more hardship on smaller restaurant operators that have struggled during the pandemic?

The County understands that a few businesses may find it difficult to initially meet the requirements of the ordinance, which is why a waiver process is included in cases of hardship. We are also exploring other supportive measures, such as providing technical assistance to educate restaurants about compliant products and where to source them. The ordinance’s timeline, providing at least a year for businesses to achieve compliance, will allow the County to work with businesses to understand and address barriers or apply for waivers if necessary.

What steps has the County’s Chief Sustainability Office taken to ensure adequate input from stakeholders before moving forward?

The County initiated stakeholder engagement shortly after a preliminary motion was adopted in fall of 2019 and before the drafting of any ordinance language. Stakeholder meetings were attended by a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from the restaurant and plastics industry, the waste industry, environmental and environmental justice advocates, and local jurisdictions.

What are the next steps on the proposed ordinance?

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider the measure at its regularly scheduled meeting on April 5. If the preliminary ordinance is approved, the Board would then hold a second reading of the ordinance, likely at the following regularly scheduled meeting, where they would vote on adopting the final ordinance.

Why can’t we just recycle these single-use products instead of banning them?

Unfortunately, 85% of single-use plastic items in California are not actually recycled, and most recycling facilities in the Los Angeles region do not accept single-use plastic food service ware of any kind because of their size and contamination. There simply is not enough economic demand for our plastic waste to create a sustainable market for our recycled single-use plastics. It’s far easier and cheaper for producers to just use fossil fuels or so-called “virgin plastic.”

How do single-use plastics accelerate harmful climate change?

Single-use plastics production is dependent on the extraction and processing of fossil fuels. This process of sourcing, creating and transporting plastics creates local air pollution and contributes to climate change. If left unchecked, the plastics industry is projected to account for 20% of total oil consumption and 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050. Given falling demand for gasoline, plastics will be the greatest growth market for oil in the next decade, with plastic production expected to double by 2040.

What are the economic impacts of single-use plastics?

California communities spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on clean-up and waste prevention programs that combat litter and prevent it from entering our environment. Cleanup strategies cannot keep pace with the rapid production of single-use disposable items. Decreasing the flow of plastic debris that enters the local litter stream will help lessen these costs and let us redirect resources to address other community priorities.

What are some of the other negative impacts of single-use plastics?

  • Microplastics can be found in nearly all aspects of the natural environment including the air we breathe, the animals we consume, and the water we drink. Exposure to microplastics and associated chemicals have raised concerns about a range of potential health impacts including cancer, birth defects and impaired immune systems. 
  • Disadvantaged communities shoulder most of the negative health impacts associated with single-use plastics at every stage of the supply chain. Oil refineries, plastic manufacturers, landfills, and incinerators are often located in low-income communities of color and expose residents to high levels of harmful toxins.
  • Single-use plastic pollution is also disruptive to the natural environment, especially aquatic ecosystems. Littered plastic eventually finds its way into rivers, lakes, and oceans through storm drains and rain runoff. Half of the waste collected during river and beach cleanups in California is plastic debris.
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