San Juan County Council to vote on Styrofoam ban Jan. 5

The days of the ubiquitous polystyrene “to-go” container appear all but numbered in San Juan County.

The County Council voted Dec. 15 without dissent to approve a final version of legislation which would ban nearly all forms of so-called expanded polystyrene products as food containers.

The primary targets of the proposed ban are Styrofoam-like coolers, cups, takeout and to-go containers.

The legislation will be back for final approval at a Jan. 5 public hearing.

That hearing could be the last leg of a long and often uphill battle for San Juan Island’s Doris Estabrooks, who’s led a five-year campaign to rid the islands of polystyrene food containers. In July, the ban failed by one vote but the council agreed to re-evaluate its stance at a time when all six council members were present.

Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, who voiced support for a ban in earlier discussions, was absent from that July meeting. Councilmen Rich Peterson and Gene Knapp cited pending budget cuts, enforcement difficulties and reluctance to burden local businesses with added costs in opposing the ban at that time.

Since then, however, the Town of Friday Harbor, home to the highest concentration of restaurants countywide, jumped on the “ban-wagon” by passing legislation that prohibits most forms of polystyrene food containers. The ban takes effect on April 22, 2010, and coincides with Earth Day of the coming year.

Estabrooks believes the County Council has a second chance to demonstrate its commitment to protect the health of its citizens, as well as the environment, by outlawing the use of a toxic, petroleum-based material for which options of equal or lesser cost are available.

Estabrooks said the ban is long overdue.

“It’s being banned in places all around the world because of the damage it does to health, not just to the fish and the birds, but to humans too,” she said. “I would be so pleased if it passes because it shows that islanders do care about the environment and we of all people should be leading the way.”

That could be the case, at least in Washington state. If approved, the ban will put San Juan at the forefront of the state’s 39 counties in prohibiting businesses from selling, providing or sending out food in containers made of polystyrene. It would also go into effect on Earth Day 2010.

Violators would face a fine of $50 for a first offense and up to $250 for subsequent offenses.

As with most laws, exemptions exist.

The ordinance, as proposed, excludes food products delivered to local grocery stores or food vendors in sealed, prepackaged polystyrene containers, like hamburger, fish and shellfish, and it does not apply to other polystyrene products, such as packing peanuts.

Polystyrene is also used in construction materials, in manufacturing electrical appliances and in other household items.

According to the U.S. Environmental Agency, styrene, a petroleum-based material, is a carcinogen and neurotoxin that can adversely affect the nervous, hormonal and reproductive systems of humans and animals. It’s considered non-biodegrable, taking as long as 500 years to break down, and like most plastics, it is lightweight and floats.

When exposed to sunlight, polystyrene products break down slowly into smaller and smaller pieces and the tiny bits are easily mistaken by marine animals as food.

Despite many setbacks, Estabrooks said it’s not in her nature to abandon such a worthy cause.

“I believe in fighting for principles and standing up for what’s right. What kept me going is the encouragement I’ve gotten from so many islanders. People I don’t even know have come up to me and thanked me for what I’m doing.”

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