LINCOLN BLVD. — The process of finding Earth friendly take-out boxes was one of trial and error for Hector Padilla.
When the citywide ban on to-go containers made from expanded polystyrene — better known as Styrofoam — and clear polystyrene went into effect last year, the manager of Bay Cities Italian Deli Bakery set out to find an affordable alternative that would be strong enough to hold sauces.
With a limited number of options, Padilla decided to try a corn-based product, considering it the greenest of those available.
Then came the calls from customers demanding the restaurant pay their dry cleaning bills, complaining that the chicken parmesan they ordered seeped through the containers. There were also the patrons who claimed that the containers caught fire in the microwave.
“If you get burgers and fries then they hold fine,” Padilla said. “If you get a chicken parmesan dinner with the nice pasta sauce, it runs right through.”
He eventually found the perfect alternative in the black recyclable plastic containers, which not only holds the Italian dishes, but doesn’t cost significantly more than expanded polystyrene.
“We weathered the storm and things worked out,” he said.
The passage of the polystyrene ban in 2007 was met with mixed reaction from local restaurant owners, some pleased that city officials were tightening up environmental regulations, others concerned with how sustainable products would impact their bottom line. Restaurants had about a year to make the switch and phase out any Styrofoam products they might use.
While the transition might not have been smooth for all businesses, a number of them say there are no problems with the ban today and overall feel it’s good to go green.
Shortly after the ban was adopted, City Hall hired Josephine Miller, a former chef who worked in the city, to assist restaurants change over from polystyrene, meeting with distributors about expanding their offerings of to-go packages and educating businesses about what materials are acceptable.
City Hall also has information about the ban on its Web site, which includes a list of about 75 distributors who sell alternative containers.
“We as a city don’t make any recommendations,” Miller said. “What we do is highlight what other people in the community are doing and what people in other communities have chosen.”
Slightly more than two dozen restaurants have received warnings of violations since the ban went into effect in February of 2008, almost all of which were reported from patrons.
Restaurants are given two weeks to comply and are encouraged to meet with Miller. None have been fined as of yet, but three restaurants are expected to receive citations next week.
The first citation carries a $100 penalty, increasing to $250 for subsequent offenses.
Restaurants have generally been supportive of the stricter regulations. Some have expressed frustration that they are forced to switch from Styrofoam to more sustainable options when other cities don’t have a ban, Miller said.
“Imagine if you were a burrito stand or hamburger joint on Lincoln on the border of Venice and one block away the same style of business is using a lot of Styrofoam,” Miller said. “It would be very frustrating to you.”
The cost of switching away from Styrofoam was a concern of many business owners when the regulations were adopted. Andrew Casana, a consultant for the California Restaurant Association, said that alternative products on average range from three to four times the cost of expanded polystyrene.
Casana said that the environmental impacts of some of the newer products on the market will not be known for at least 10 years.
Patrick Good, who owns The Shack, said that the containers he ended up choosing are more expensive.
The restaurant uses a biodegradable plastic for salads and paper for hot food items.
“I’m all about going green but it was a big expense,” he said.
Michael Anderson, the owner of Chez Jay, said he hardly notices the price difference, adding that the transition was painless after meeting with city officials about which products to use.
“We didn’t like the change at first, but within two weeks, it was easy,” he said.
Some customers say they agree with the ban. Some said they weren’t even aware of the switch.
“If there are cheaper, easier way to box your food then so be it,” Alex Hackford of West Hollywood said outside Bay Cities on Wednesday. “I haven’t noticed a change in take-out boxes but I also haven’t really been looking.”
Natalie Jarvey contributed to this report