SAN JOSE -- San Jose took a step closer to becoming the largest city in California and perhaps the nation to ban plastic foam food containers after voting Tuesday to pursue phasing them out beginning next year -- a move aimed at reducing a stubbornly durable form of litter that ends up in creeks, rivers and oceans.

The 9-2 vote, with Councilmen Pete Constant and Johnny Khamis opposed, would move to phaseout the containers in 2014 for large businesses and 2015 for small businesses. The vote calls for the city to conduct environmental impact studies on a potential countywide plastic foam phaseout that could speed adoption of similar bans in other local cities and lessen competitive disadvantages for those in San Jose. It also wants the city to increase litter-reduction efforts.

"It's a big ocean, a big bay, but we're the largest city in the country to be considering this move," said Councilman Sam Liccardo, who argued that America's 10th largest city would have great impact on litter reduction.

The next step will be for city officials to produce an Environmental Impact Report, which will take several months, according to the office of Mayor Chuck Reed, who supported pursuing the ban. Once completed, the council would then consider recommendations for implementing the potential phaseout prior to final approval.

Restaurant owners and other critics argued such a ban would force small businesses to buy more expensive and less effective takeout food containers, eating into their bottom line at a time when they already are facing higher state sales taxes, federal payroll taxes and a new San Jose minimum wage hike taking effect next month.


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"Another cost doesn't help small business," said Andres Valencia, who owns a San Jose Mexican restaurant.

Danthy Nguyen, who owns Pho Noodle House, argued there's nothing quite as effective as plastic foam cups and clamshells for hot, wet foods.

"We feel that the foam we use contains heat really well, so customers don't burn their fingers," Nguyen said.

Supporters in the audience and on the council -- including one environmental activist dressed in a plastic foam suit -- said the foam doesn't break down easily in the environment but rather breaks into smaller pieces and poses a hazard to wildlife in addition to being unsightly. The plastic foam is technically "expanded polystyrene" or EPS but often popularly called "Styrofoam," although Dow Chemical Co., which trademarked that name, says it doesn't manufacture foodware.

"I represent 216 pieces of Styrofoam that we cleaned from Coyote Creek," said Save Our Shores program coordinator Rachel Kippen, who wore the plastic foam "monster" suit at the meeting. "To make sure you rid me from our environment, please move forward with this ban."

Despite the lopsided vote, the council hearing lasted three hours as officials weighed various proposed alternatives. Constant, Khamis and Councilman Xavier Campos failed to garner enough support for a substitute motion to defer action on the proposed ban in favor of further litter reduction studies. Opponents hoped to use the next few months to head off the proposed ban.

Michael Westerfield, director of recycling at Dart Container, which supplies restaurants with foam containers, said, "There are 65 communities across the state including the city of Los Angeles that successfully recycle foam every day and we will continue to encourage the city to move forward with an approach that will actually move the city closer to achieving its zero waste goal."

In other actions, the council on Tuesday night unanimously agreed to accept a proposal to revitalize a five-acre parcel in San Jose's Japantown with housing, retail and a public park in an area that once was used to store and maintain city-owned vehicles. Before that, it was the site of San Jose's last Chinatown.

Under the terms of the outline, Portland, Ore.-based developer Williams & Dame Development would buy the land for $24 million, and build 600 rental units in several towers capped at six stories high. Some 6,000 to 12,000 square feet of retail space and green space for the local farmers market also would be included.

Another three-quarters of an acre would be dedicated to a space for a Creative Center for the Arts, a permanent home for not only the San Jose taiko drum troupe, but CreaTV and the Arts Council Silicon Valley.

Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.