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Photograph by Steve Hahn
The Grown-Up Sippy Cup: Dustin MacDonald, chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of Surfrider, wields alternatives to polystyrene to-go containers.

Watching The Enforcers

The local chapter of Surfrider scrutinizes Capitola for enforcement of the polystyrene ban.

By Steve Hahn

Dustin MacDonald is leaning over the rail at Capitola Beach, pointing at the sand.

"There's some bits of polystyrene over there. There's some more," he says. "The plastics get washed down here from all these storm drains. It's hard to see all of it because it gets broken up into such tiny pieces, but it all goes out to the ocean."

MacDonald, who acts as chair of the Santa Cruz Surfrider Foundation, is getting ready to launch an effort to hold the city of Capitola accountable for a ban on the dread substance, which has been found in the stomachs of dead birds, in the middle of a trash heap in the Pacific and in the fatty tissues of humans. He says the city doesn't appear to be implementing the polystyrene ban it was supposed to start enforcing last December. He claims members of Surfrider submitted at least three complaints identifying businesses still using to-go containers and cups made of polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam), but got no response from the city. Meanwhile, the offending restaurants continue to serve food in polystyrene containers.

Now Surfrider is gathering up as many complaint forms as possible and plans to submit them en masse to City Hall in the hopes of creating an independently documented paper trail.

"It's unfortunate that it doesn't seem like Capitola is taking this seriously," he says. "So we started gathering the paperwork from our members and we're going to compile them all and submit them ourselves. That way, we have some sort of an idea of how many of these forms are being submitted."

Capitola city staffers say they are not careless eco-villains but simply overstretched employees. Lisa Murphy works as an assistant to the city manager; a part-time employee, she alone is responsible for enforcing the polystyrene ban. She says she's received seven complaint forms concerning five businesses and that all of those businesses have been contacted in one form or another. Murphy, who describes the city's recycling efforts as one of her "passions," says she's been diligently petitioning violators of the polystyrene ban and working with restaurateurs having a hard time finding alternatives for certain products.

"People need to put this in a bigger picture. We are trying to do a lot with almost no staff," she says, citing her other work on instituting a needle collection program and boosting citywide recycling efforts. "I only work three days a week, and I have a lot of other things to worry about. We get these mandates out there, but the follow-up is hard. I mean, why can't these [restaurant owners] just do the right thing? I feel like these people at Surfrider think we don't care, but we really do. Believe me."

The restaurants in question include Cafe Violette, Donut Station, El Toro Bravo, Souza's Ice Cream and Thai Basil. Murphy says she's contacted all the owners.

El Toro Bravo has switched over almost all its products, but couldn't find a replacement for one item and has been actively looking for one, according to Murphy. Souza's Ice Cream has been granted an exemption by the city because the alternative would be more expensive than the polystyrene product the store currently uses (the ordinance allows this exemption). Cafe Violette is using up its remaining stock of polystyrene and has been warned that it must find a biodegradable alternative before its next supply run. Thai Basil and Donut Station have both been sent letters notifying them they are in violation and will be issued fines of $100 each if they don't comply with the rules within the three-month grace period allowed under the ordinance, or by July 24.

As for the issue of transparency, Murphy says she called back all but one of the people filing the complaint forms (excluding those who filed anonymously).

MacDonald says he just wants to keep Capitola's feet to the fire. The city was the first in the county to pass an ordinance banning polystyrene. MacDonald believes Capitola's initiative has created an example that has been followed by the city and county of Santa Cruz and may soon be followed by Scotts Valley and Monterey County. But if the ordinance isn't enforced after it's implemented, MacDonald argues, the whole effort will be for naught.

"Capitola was really visionary and we were really stoked to see it happen here as the first foothold in the Bay. Now, everyone is hot on the heels of Capitola," he says. "It needs to be enforced and even be stronger. Then we'll be headed in the right direction."

This may all be a case of miscommunication, but there is also a very real possibility that the debate over enforcement actually reveals a wider philosophical rift between supporters of the ban and Capitola Mayor Kirby Nicol. Nicol, who voted against the law last year, according to the Sentinel, believes education, not punishment, is the best way to transition to responsible, eco-friendly alternatives.

"We believe very strongly in education as a tool to cultivate civilized behavior, and we try to avoid the penitentiary as much as possible," says Nicol. "Social behavior modifies over time. It starts slow, gains inertia and then hits a tipping point, and those behaviors go away due to peer pressure. That's really the best way to shape society into a civilized space.

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