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Climate and Environment

Restaurants In Unincorporated LA County Are Now Banned From Using Plastics. What To Know About The New Ordinance

A trash can with a plastic lining is overflowing with used Styrofoam containers of various shapes and sizes.
An ordinance that went into effect on May 1, 2023 bans restaurants in the unincorporated areas of L.A. County from using Styrofoam containers and single-use food service plasticware.
(cgdeaw/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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L.A. County’s new plastics ordinance officially went into effect on Monday. That means if you’re dining in a restaurant in the unincorporated areas of L.A. County, you should no longer see single-use plastic foodware or Styrofoam.

The ordinance:

  • Phases out single-use foodware that is not compostable or recyclable, including all plastic items and compostable products that don’t meet certain requirements.
  • Phases out the sale or rental of what’s commonly known as Styrofoam.
  • Requires that full-service restaurants use reusable food serviceware for dine-in customers.

Enforcement will be phased in for different food providers over the next two years. Street vendors are exempt for now.

  • Food trucks will have 18 months to reach compliance. 
  • Temporary food providers such as farmers markets, caterers, or community event organizers will have two years.
  • According to the county, financial penalties will be a last resort. Violations could result in fines up to $100 per day per violation up to a maximum of $1,000 per year.

The ordinance does not apply to the county’s 88 incorporated cities, although many of them — including the city of Los Angeles — have or are considering plastics bans of their own.

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Trash and climate impacts

Plastic makes up the vast majority of L.A. County’s litter, according to research by UCLA commissioned by the county to help it write its plastics ordinance. And most plastic — more than 85% — isn’t recycled. Instead, it fills up landfills or ends up in the street and gets flushed into storm drains and ultimately the ocean, causing harmful and deadly consequences to ocean life.

It also costs a lot for the public. According to that UCLA research, taxpayers foot the bill for around $420 million every year in beach cleanup and waste prevention efforts.

Changes in policy in China, which used to take in the majority of the world’s plastics, along with increased use of single-use plastics during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, have only worsened the problem.

Global waste practices disrupted

Plastic not only trashes landscapes and oceans, it also has a major climate problem. Pretty much all plastics are made from oil, a fossil fuel in the family of gas and coal. Burning fossil fuels creates the bulk of pollution driving human-caused global heating.

As the world has started to shift away from fossil fuels, the oil industry has been doubling down on plastics, seeing the sector as its largest potential for growth as demand for gas-fueled cars and trucks declines in the transition to electric transportation. Plastic production has been steadily increasing since 1950, and a recent study found that without sufficient government guardrails, plastic production largely via the oil industry is likely to at least double by 2040.

A piecemeal approach and a plastic law to rule them all

From plastic bag bans, to taxing certain harmful materials, to rethinking the waste cycle, there are lots of strategies to tackle the plastics problem better locally.

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L.A. County decided to focus its ordinance on foodware in large part because most recycling facilities in greater L.A. don’t take single-use foodware plastics, which are small and often heavily contaminated (with food of course). It creates a vicious cycle that promotes making even more plastic foodware, said Rita Kampalath, L.A. County’s acting chief sustainability officer.

She said the moment has arrived for more holistic approaches to reducing plastic waste, and that enforcing this ordinance is one essential step.

“We sort of need to rethink what is necessary versus what is just convenient,” Kampalath said.

So far local governments have largely led the way in moving such policies forward — 151 cities and counties in California have banned plastic at some level, or introduced other efforts to phase out plastics. The city of L.A., for example, is in the process of rolling out 14 measures to tackle plastic and non-recyclable materials. Those efforts expand an existing plastic bag ban and required city-run facilities to immediately take on “zero-waste” policies, including eliminating single-use plastics and using more compostable materials.

Though local efforts have helped significantly reduce plastic use in some areas, such a piecemeal approach has kept progress slow and the amount of plastics has only continued to grow worldwide. Those types of bans haven’t been statewide and certainly are not global.

But momentum is gaining. A state law passed last year aims to address plastic pollution throughout the products’ life cycle, putting an unprecedented level of responsibility on manufacturers and companies to curb their impact. The law is likely to influence international policies, as talks continue around a global treaty to tackle plastic production and pollution.

California's plastic law
  • Read more on what California’s new plastics law says here.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

One big challenge is that many new products are coming out, including those claiming to be compostable or recyclable. Even large-scale composting facilities — which are expanding as cities and counties work to comply with the state’s law to divert food waste from landfills — say they don’t take many certified compostable materials.

Kampalath said that’s why the county’s ordinance includes a tiered system for compostable materials, with the preference being for fully fiber-based materials (such as paper, wood or cardboard) that could technically be composted at home.

“If those types of materials or products aren't available, that’s where we start getting into those areas that are a little bit more complicated,” Kampalath said. “But it's not a free-for-all … It's also, frankly, something where we need to work with composting facilities to figure out what is going to be acceptable.”

Ultimately Kampalath said that’s why the approach can’t simply be to replace the materials within the system, but rather rethink the system as a whole.

“It's not a really simple story, unfortunately, but we're looking at it as a work in progress to get where we want to,” Kampalath said. “This is a problem that’s been decades and decades in the making and it's just not something that we're going to solve overnight.”

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