Grandma, What Was Styrofoam? An Environmental Victory in Salinas, California

Aug 23, 2011 | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Four years ago on a summer night, I stood in line at a Capitola, California, City Council meeting with my friend Laura Kasa, the brand new Executive Director of Save Our Shores. We were waiting our turns, along with dozens of other citizens, to share our allotted three minutes about why a Styrofoam ban made sense. Kids, parents, restauranteurs, marine biologists like myself and ocean advocates like Laura each added a grain of sand to the heap of facts, opinions and passionate pleas for our coast and ocean.

If you had to take a poll right then and there, you'd say Styrofoam (technically it's expanded polystyrene, or EPS, a kind of plastic) was on its way out.

But then a man in a suit and tie -- the only person in the room dressed so formally -- stood up. He had listened to what many in this idyllic seaside surf community wanted and had patiently waited all night for his turn to let the council know what the plastics industry wanted.

With the convincing deftness, confidence and experience of a million dollar trial lawyer, he described the environmental virtues, future plans for recycling and wholesomeness of a life more plastic. He warned that a ban would cause businesses to fail and mom and pop establishments to suffer. Jobs were on the line if we excluded expanded polystyrene from the menu, and no politician wants to be responsible for killing jobs, right?

His job complete (and secure), he exited through the rear door and headed for another such council meeting.

The city council voted to make its 18-year-old voluntary ban mandatory but delayed implementation for three months to conduct surveys about enforcement and compliance. The ban eventually went into full effect and has worked out well for everyone.

Four years later, down the road in Salinas, California, Laura Kasa stood in front of the City Council as they considered their own ban on EPS containers. This time there was no man in a suit behind her. This time Kasa had four years more experience and a boatload more political savvy. And while most would have said that the inland, agricultural community of Salinas would be one of the last places to adopt a ban and that the anti-plastic pollution momentum along the coast wouldn't reach the valley, Kasa made her own momentum.

The Californian newspaper quoted her saying that "groups opposed to the ban risk isolating themselves and becoming irrelevant in this new environmentally driven, high-tech economy, and Salinas can't risk such a narrow vision for its future. By passing the polystyrene ban, the City of Salinas will be taking a huge step forward, and making a statement that Salinas is a leader, not a follower."

A month prior, this meeting had to be postponed. It was rumored the industry lobbyists were trying to get closed door meetings with the mayor. And DART, one of the biggest manufacturers of EPS takeout containers, was trying to convince the council members to tour their recycling facility -- their preferred, tired and failed solution to the global mess made by their products.

That delay turned out to be just what Kasa and Save Our Shores needed. Through serendipity, she met Matthew Spiegl at a screening of an ocean film, who was interested in the issue and introduced her to folks at the Chamber of Commerce and Restaurant Association, the Old Town Salinas Association and the mayor. A letter-writing campaign, non-stop networking and a flood of media followed.

At the meeting that Thursday night, 22 people spoke in support of the ban. The mayor was surprised -- he had rarely seen the council chambers filled with members of the public.

"For the first time in 5 years of attending these meetings, the American Chemistry Council didn't send their reps in suits, Dart Corporation and the Restaurant Association didn't show up. The council voted 6-1 to pass it and I'm still in shock. It just goes to show you that sometimes a grassroots effort is the only way to make the right thing happen in a community," said Kasa.

Some day, not too far in the future, your kids and grandkids may ask you questions like "what was Styrofoam?" and "what's a gas station?"

When that happens, tell them the story about summer night city council meetings in Capitola, Salinas and a growing list of communities around the world.

Tell them about how plastic used to blow and float around on the land and in the ocean. And tell them about how it used to end up in the stomachs of animals like baby albatrosses and sea turtles. Tell them about oil spills and tar balls, smog and climate change.

Then tell them how people got organized, pulled together the best research and made smart changes to clean up our planet. Tell them how scientists and engineers figured out how to make the same containers out of materials that turn into soil when we are done using them or can be reused over and over and over again. Tell them about fearless and tireless advocates for our coast and ocean like Laura Kasa and Save Our Shores' founding director Dan Haifley.

The Salinas City Council meeting was an important tipping point in the fight to keep plastic pollution out of the ocean. In a city where jobs and budgets are tightly guarded, industry lobbyists voices are loud, issues more urgent than Styrofoam abound, and environmentalists are few and far between, a clear decision was made to vote for health, community and a cleaner planet.

Some day, we will live in petroleum-free communities, free of plastic pollution. These are the first steps -- these small revolutions -- that are building towards that vision. Show some gratitude to the advocates, activists and decision-makers who are leading us in that direction.