British Columbia

Why you won't be eating out of foam containers in Vancouver starting Jan. 1

Vancouver has outlawed polystyrene foam cups and food containers in the city because they are hard to recycle and most often end up in the trash. The foam ban is one of the actions the city is taking to meet its zero waste 2040 goal.

Polystyrene foam cups and containers are no longer allowed as they are hard to recycle

Styrofoam food containers dropped off at Vancouver’s Zero Waste Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, December 30, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Those ubiquitous white foam food containers, so often used for take-away food, will become dinosaurs in Vancouver on Jan. 1, 2020.

The city has joined other cities in North America in banning polystyrene containers and cups to help meet waste reduction goals. The containers can be tricky to recycle and often end up going to landfills.

Much like plastic-lined paper containers and cups, plastic foam (often called styrofoam though that is a Dow Chemical Company trademark) can only be recycled when it's clean and dry. In Vancouver, plastic foam is not collected at curbside. It must be delivered to a recycling depot.

City officials say a study they conducted showed only six per cent of residents were willing to do that, which means lots of foam was ending up in landfills. 

City councillors voted in June 2018 to ban the containers, but implementation of the bylaw was pushed back from June 1, 2019 to Jan. 1, 2020, as businesses said they needed more time to come up with alternatives.

The foam ban applies to all white and coloured polystyrene foam cups and foam take-out containers that are used for serving prepared food or beverages, including plates, cups, bowls, trays, cartons, and hinged or lidded containers.

All business licence holders in the City of Vancouver must comply with the ban, including food vendors, food courts and grocery stores, as well as special events and festivals.

Styrofoam food containers are pictured at a food court in Vancouver in early December. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The B.C. Restaurant and Food Association, which is supportive of the move away from foam containers, said there were obstacles, including costs.

A compostable clamshell take-out container, for example, costs about 20 cents whereas a plastic foam container costs less than one cent. 

Other alternatives include ceramic dishes, plastic containers, steel trays, plates or tiffins, reusable plastic plates, paper containers coated in plastic, aluminum containers and compostable containers made from leaves, paper or plant fibres.

Watch Alex Kim with Momo Sushi in Vancouver explain his support for the foam ban:

Alex Kim, the operator of Momo Sushi on Bidwell Street, explains his support of Vancouver's foam ban, which starts Jan. 1, 2020. 0:33

Alex Kim operates Momo Sushi on Bidwell Street in Vancouver. It switched over to a paper alternative in November and Kim says he's supportive.

"Styrofoam is not good for peoples' health and [the] Earth," he said.

The change will cost his business around 15 per cent more per container, but he's not sure yet if he will pass those costs onto customers.

Exemptions

The ban does not apply to food that is prepared in hospitals for patients and the residents of community-care centres. A one-year exemption to the ban has been provided to charitable food providers so that they have more time to come up with a cost-effective alternative.

The city says it has been helping businesses with the transition away from foam by notifying them with letters, providing tool kits and having officials visits establishments in person.

There could be penalties for businesses that do not comply with the bans, but city officials say they will focus on education and outreach to provide support for the transition.

With files from Tina Lovgreen

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