05/09/2012 03:25 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Plastic Money: Under the Influence of Styrofoam

There are leaders in San Jose who can put pencil to paper and give us technological wonders to enhance our world tomorrow but who lack the vision to see how banning Styrofoam can enrich our world today.

The City of San Jose was set to follow its successful single-use plastic bag ban with a new ban on Styrofoam to-go containers. The citizens had spoken and their local leaders heard them -- so they thought; then something unseemly happened.

City officials abandoned the public process; tossed aside months of outreach, workshops and citizen input at eight different "Green to Go" meetings; ignored staff reports, recommendations, and cost analysis; and indefinitely delayed a citywide ban on Styrofoam (polystyrene or EPS), to-go food ware.

Delaying the citywide ban on Styrofoam is an act of urban cowardice. It is not only a betrayal of the environment, but of the people as well -- people who want to live in healthy communities, people who see this as an issue of environmental justice, and people who believe progressive policies toward the environment and the economy should be coexistent, not competing, interests.

San Jose officials are being tight lipped about the details, but what we do know is that DART Container Corporation reportedly offered a $100,000 "incentive" to San Jose to stop the citywide ban from going forward. News of this environmental scandal broke in an article by investigative reporter Josh Koehn.

Jennifer Garnett, a spokesperson for San Jose's Environmental Services Department, was quoted as saying:

We as a staff met with DART, and at that point DART suggested they had a budget of $100,000.

So, what we've agreed to do is work on a pilot effort that is designed to explore how this partnership might work. We haven't taken any money nor have we taken a commitment, but why don't we try to work together to see if a private-public partnership might work to decrease litter?

But in a November 17, 2011 Memorandum to the City of San Jose Transportation and Environment Committee, Kerrie Romanow, San Jose's Director of Environmental Services, said that a citywide ban on Styrofoam to-go food ware would make a demonstrable improvement in the conditions of San Jose's creeks and neighborhoods by removing one of the most ubiquitous, highly visible, and persistent pollutants from San Jose's waterways and streets; she concluded that recycling is not a viable option for significantly reducing Styrofoam litter.

At some point, the veracity of DART's claims and representations about Styrofoam recyclability need to be questioned. How is it good for the environment to perpetuate the presence of Styrofoam to-go containers in our everyday lives?

As ocean explorers, advocates, educators, and conservationists, the Cousteau family is influential when it comes to the environment -- a fact that hasn't been lost on the plastic industry, which often quotes Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, to persuade the public that bans on products like single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam to-go containers don't work.

DART, in particular, takes liberty with Jean-Michel Cousteau's words, disingenuously posting on its website an article written by Cousteau in 2005 with a misleading imprimatur that some might interpret as an endorsement by Cousteau in support of DART's mantra that "bans don't work." But, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to banning Styrofoam.

Cousteau: If Styrofoam is banned we are all better off

I asked Jean-Michel Cousteau how he felt about DART, and others in the plastic industry, using his words to oppose local Styrofoam bans like the one proposed for San Jose and statewide legislation like California's SB 568 by Senator Alan Lowenthal. In an exclusive statement, Jean-Michel said this:

Regarding my position on the widespread use of Styrofoam, it has come to my attention that some may not clearly comprehend what I wrote about many years ago, or may be interpreting my words for their convenience. In 2005, I pointed out that bans on certain environmentally damaging products like Styrofoam would not change human nature. If the products were available, some people would continue to use them in spite of all the information that the substances caused harm to our precious environment. My viewpoint as expressed in that article remains the same; to successfully and unconditionally prevent the degradation of our environment, we as a people, as a society, must change our ways. Specifically, we must recognize the harm caused by discarding Styrofoam, and stop it.

To focus on human nature by some of littering with whatever product has been handed to us
in our everyday lives did not mean then, and does not mean now, that I don't want to remove these harmful elements from our daily commerce. If Styrofoam is banned -- if Styrofoam is not available to litter and end up in our landfills -- we are all better off. And surely we, working together, can come up with alternatives that allow us to take home our take-out food and "doggie bags" without tempting human nature to routinely discard harmful materials.

In other words, in our efforts to preserve and protect our planet, let's use all realistic and obvious capabilities. Banning Styrofoam is one of those capabilities. At the same time, we must never give up on educating people, and appealing to their better instincts to act responsibly. When people act responsibly, we will not have to worry about each city or state or government banning specific products. When we learn certain materials are harmful, and we let people know, responsible people will not use those products, and the people by their action will enforce their own ban.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, President Ocean Futures Society - April 12, 2012.

The Mayor of San Jose has expressed skepticism about a citywide Styrofoam ban; he reasons that banning Styrofoam doesn't ultimately reduce the amount of litter, it just changes one kind of litter for another. The Mayor's position parrots the DART corporate line -- a superficial, oversimplified and uninformed argument that ignores the fact that not all litter is created equal.

In 2004, the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) issued a report to the California Legislature: Use and Disposal of Polystyrene in California. The report documents the unique environmental challenges posed by Styrofoam or polystyrene litter, and the cost to taxpayers to clean up this elusive and pervasive form of litter from our streets and highways; our parks, playgrounds and beaches; our storm drains, creeks and rivers; and ultimately the ocean where Styrofoam and marine debris are notoriously synonymous.

Laura Kasa, executive director of Save Our Shores, understands the connection between Styrofoam and marine debris. An active and outspoken proponent of city and countywide Styrofoam bans, Kasa has stated that she intends to do whatever it takes to get San Jose's citywide ban back on the council's agenda. Kasa isn't alone. A recent Mercury News Editorial called on Silicon Valley to do its part to reduce plastic in the ocean, noting that San Jose is positioned as a national leader in this arena, but that it can do more.

Fighting "big plastic" at the state level is a David versus Goliath struggle but it shouldn't be that way at the local level. City Councils and Boards of Supervisors represent the best chance for citizens to petition their government on a fair, honest and level playing field.

How much did the San Jose City Council know about DART before considering this deal? Were they aware that last year the Sacramento County District Attorney launched an investigation of DART for "greenwashing" claims about the recyclability of its Styrofoam cups? According to one news report, the district attorney said that DART's recycling claims violated Federal Trade Commission guidelines and California Law.

Did Mayor Reed's staff do its homework? Was the Mayor told that Kenneth and Robert C. Dart, the brothers who own the DART Container Corporation, renounced their United States Citizenship and moved offshore to avoid paying taxes? Profit over patriotism -- is that of any consequence to the Mayor, a veteran, Air Force Academy graduate, and father of a daughter who serves our country and risks her life defending our flag as a decorated fighter pilot?

Is DART really the type of role model San Jose wants to be in "partnership" with?

Maybe San Jose didn't take DART's money, but it clearly had an undue influence on city officials, causing them to do exactly what DART wanted -- stop the public process of enacting a citywide Styrofoam ban. Bringing transparency and sunshine to city hall is a cornerstone of the administration of Mayor Reed, who promised the citizens of San Jose honesty and open government:

It is important for San José residents to have confidence in their government. The special interest groups, the lobbyists, the influence peddlers, and the fixers will not run City Hall.

Good intentions are meaningless, and words of honesty and integrity ring hollow, without actions to back them up. To make this right, Mayor Reed and the San Jose City Council need to come clean about any Styrofoam deal they made with DART. You can let the City of San Jose know what you think by sending a message directly to the Mayor and Council using the city's simple on-line web form here.

Thank you to Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis from Ocean Futures Society, and Laura Kasa from Save Our Shores, for your cooperation, assistance, and passionate advocacy for the ocean and planet.