SAN JOSE -- After flirting with the idea for years, San Jose is poised to become the largest city in California, and perhaps the nation, to approve a ban on plastic foam food containers.

"Polystyrene in foodware is going to go the way of lead in gasoline," predicted Councilman Sam Liccardo, who has urged the ban that the City Council will vote on Tuesday. "In three years, nobody will miss it."

Opponents, including restaurant and business groups and the plastics industry, are lobbying heavily to head off a ban in the state's third-largest city, fearing it could inspire more sweeping restrictions statewide. Critics call it a case of government meddling run amok that will further burden San Jose companies already grappling with a higher city minimum wage and plastic bag ban. They argue that foam takeout boxes can be recycled, and 65 California cities are doing that now.

"There's a bit of frustration from these small-business owners who feel their concerns are falling into deaf ears," said Javier Gonzalez, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Association.

But environmentalists and city officials say there's no market for recycling plastic foam, and most of what's collected ends up in landfills.

"There are a lot of claims that this stuff is recyclable," said Napp Fukuda, San Jose's deputy director of environmental services. "It's not."

Plus, they say, the alternatives such as paper plates and aluminum foil are both less expensive and less polluting. Liccardo said that replacing a foam "clamshell" container and plastic takeout bag with wax paper has reduced costs to Lee's Sandwiches in his district. Replacing foam containers with alternate paper products in multiple restaurants also lowered their trash volume garbage collection rates.

San Jose has been studying a foam container ban for years, among several leading-edge environmental moves city leaders have adopted recently to advance a "Green Vision" agenda. Those include a recent ban on plastic takeout bags at city supermarkets and other retailers that took effect last year.

The City Council in February voted to pursue phasing out foam containers in 2014 for large businesses and in 2015 for small businesses. The vote also called 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 San Jose businesses.

The plastic foam ban ordinance and environmental study approval now are returning to the council for approval.

"There are many cities in the region that are waiting for San Jose to act and don't want to make the move until the big dog has done it," Liccardo said.

The plastic foam -- technically "expanded polystyrene," or EPS -- is popularly known as Styrofoam. However, Dow Chemical Co., which trademarked that name, says it doesn't manufacture food containers. City officials argue that the product is uniquely problematic and that alternatives either degrade naturally and more quickly or don't break apart as easily, making them easier to control.

San Jose restaurant owners have mixed views of the proposed city ordinance. Some such as Alice Liao, who runs The Loving Hut vegan eatery at Oakridge Mall, said her restaurant has used biodegradable food containers for years, even though it costs more. She says she's proud the city is taking steps to protect the environment.

"We care about the environment -- that's our focus, to introduce healthy, delicious food without costing the environment or planet Earth," Liao said. "I just hope that more people use this environment-friendly material, and then the cost will be lower, and it will be better for the planet. It should be a lifestyle."

But Dan-Thy Nguyen, who runs the Pho Y Noodle House on Concourse Drive, said few practical substitutes for plastic foam are available to hold the hot soup that is her restaurant's specialty.

"Our core business is hot soup, and the foam cups work really well for that," Nguyen said. "They have paper options, but I just don't think it's the same. Whatever laws they pass, whatever they decide, we're the ones paying for it, not them."

Nguyen added that San Jose ought to go after the litterbugs, not the plastic foam.

"It's not the material that's the problem," she said. "It's the people. If you use it and you're responsible and throw it in the trash, it shouldn't be a problem."

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

proposed ban
To help reduce litter, San Jose is considering banning plastic foam food containers. Some quick facts:
  • What is being banned? Containers such as "clamshell" takeout boxes made of expanded polystyrene, or EPS. The material is popularly known as Styrofoam, but Dow Chemical Co., which trademarked that name, says it doesn't manufacture food containers.
  • What would the rules require? All San Jose food vendors would be required to switch to nonfoam alternatives such as paper and aluminum foil.
  • When would the rules take effect? Multistate restaurant chains would need to switch by Jan. 1, 2014. All others, including small neighborhood restaurants, would have an additional year to transition and would need to switch by Jan. 1, 2015.
  • What are the alternatives, and what do they cost? Alternatives include paper or rigid plastic and products made from organic materials such as corn, potato or sugar cane fiber. Some cost more and some less than plastic foam. San Jose provides a list on the city's website: www.sanjoseca.gov/eps.
  • Why ban plastic foam? The city says it is uniquely troublesome because it is stubbornly durable and also breaks apart easily, making it harder to collect for disposal.
  • What do critics say? Critics, including business and restaurant groups, argue that plastic foam can be recycled -- something city officials dispute -- and that the new requirement will add a costly burden to local business owners and deprive consumers of effective containers.
  • Who else is doing this? About 70 other cities and local governments including Los Altos Hills, Oakland and the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo and Los Angeles have banned plastic foam, but San Jose is thought to be the largest city to do so.