The Struggle Against Styrofoam Use in Isla Vista

Illustration by Melody Li

Zara Furtado-Quesenberry
Staff Writer

Have you ever wondered what personal impact you could have on your local environment? In areas where structural change and policy are ineffective, the largest impact can often be achieved by individual lifestyle changes. In Isla Vista, a community where polystyrene bans have not been instituted, bringing reusable Tupperware containers to restaurants could be the key to eradicating polystyrene use.

Polystyrene, sometimes referred to as styrofoam, is a non-recyclable material derived from petroleum. Over the past half-century, it gained popularity in the food and beverage industry because of its light, insulating properties and its low cost of production. However, studies conducted by the EPA have linked its usage to cancer, neurological issues, and other harmful health effects. 

In recent years, the hazards of using polystyrene for food storage have come to light and appear to be much worse than originally thought, as explained in an article by Business Barbados. The breakdown process for polystyrene begins the moment it’s created. Styrene particles can be absorbed into the body through inhalation or touch, so even handling unused polystyrene containers is dangerous. Once food or liquid is added, the decomposition of the polystyrene is accelerated, leading to food contamination. 

These harmful health effects do not disappear once the containers are thrown away — polystyrene continues to release hazardous chemicals as it breaks down in landfills (a 500-year-long process), leading to drinking water contamination in surrounding communities. 

The past decade has seen a wave of polystyrene bans that swept across the country, increasing the popularity of compostable containers and spreading awareness about the dangers of polystyrene. Many Californian cities have passed this ban in recent years, including San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara. 

Isla Vista remains exempt from this ban because of its status as an unincorporated community of Santa Barbara County. Neither Santa Barbara nor Goleta have annexed Isla Vista, so it is subject to only state-wide and county-wide bans, and contains many businesses that continue to use polystyrene. These include Naan Stop, Dumpling King, Spudnuts, Aladdin Cafe, Deja Vu, and Pho Bistro.

Though some establishments are attempting to transition to more sustainable container options, the extreme price difference between polystyrene and compostable materials is too steep for some. WebstaurantStore, a website that sells bulk takeout containers, prices foam containers at around $17 per 200, while compostable containers are around $40.

Spudnuts, a local donut shop known for its potato-based baked goods, has stacks of both polystyrene and paper cups on the counter. In an interview with The Bottom Line, the owner of Spudnuts, who declined to be named, explained that the store is in the process of transitioning to more sustainable containers, and is almost polystyrene-free. When asked about how he has managed the increase in container expenses, he said that there could be product price increases in the future to balance out the cost. Although Spudnuts is an example of an in-progress success story in the movement towards more environmentally-friendly living, not all businesses are in a financial position to begin this change. 

Naan Stop, a popular Indian restaurant known for its delicious curries and friendly staff, is one such business. In an interview with The Bottom Line, Sunny, the assistant manager of Naan Stop, explained that while he “hate[s] styrofoam,” and understands its hazardous health effects, a transition to sustainable plates would “triple the price” of menu items, affecting business. Sunny also added that although Naan Stop has tried moving away from polystyrene rice bowls, and now uses recyclable plastic, “there’s not much difference between styrofoam and plastic … they’re both bad for the environment.” 

When businesses are financially unable to transition to sustainability, consumers must create individual change. Sunny mentioned that some students have started “coming in with their own containers,” and added that the management encourages this. If most patrons brought in their own reusable Tupperware to be filled, it would eradicate the need for disposable takeout containers in the first place. Although compostable containers are a far better option than polystyrene, the most sustainable option will always be the reusable one. 

So, buy a cheap, reusable container, share it with a roommate, and reduce the need for wasteful food storage. Most businesses in Isla Vista that still use polystyrene do so out of necessity, and are therefore open to more sustainable options presented by consumers. Until California is able to pass and enforce a state-wide polystyrene ban, consumer lifestyle changes are essential to improving community and environmental health.