Palo Alto's small business owners did not organize a campaign to oppose the city's anticipated plastic carryout bag ban, the Weekly has learned.
Instead, the 35-plus form letters opposing the ban — which were submitted to the City Clerk's office March 14 — were sponsored by Dart Container Corporation, a Michigan-based manufacturer of "single-use products" for food service.
According to its Web site, Dart is the world's largest producer of foam cups.
"We don't think there's a full understanding of what we believe the facts to be," Dart spokesman Jim Lammers said Thursday. He confirmed his company had sponsored the letter campaign, a tactic it has used in other communities considering bans.
"The issues surrounding the ban are much more nuanced and complicated than I think people realize and the stated goals to be achieved by these bans are not going to be realized by selecting as the target of the ban foam products," Lammers said.
The form letter, copied and signed by several dozen merchants, does not indicate it stems from Dart.
In fact, many employees who signed the opposition letters barely remembered doing so.
Ironically, such small merchants wouldn't even be affected by a city-proposed plastic-bag ban, according to Phil Bobel, the city's environmental-compliance manager. It would only affect large groceries and pharmacies.
Some local employees who signed the letter genuinely said they believe plastic bags or foam containers are critical to their businesses. Others said they had limited information and just signed because they were asked to by the Dart representative, a woman who visited restaurants and food stores on California Avenue, at Stanford Shopping Center, at Town & Country Village and along University Avenue in early March.
A man also brought the letter to hotels along El Camino Real.
It is addressed to the City Council and begins: "I AM AGAINST A BAN ON POLYSTYRENE FOODSERVICE CONTAINERS AND PLASTIC BAGS."
Mladen Lucich, a manager at Michael's Gelato & Café, and James Choi, a manager at Teuscher Palo Alto, said the woman who asked them to sign was from Dart Container.
"I'm sure that's the company," Lucich said.
He said he signed "to be nice to her."
Michael's Gelato & Café on University Avenue, a family business, will be able to adjust to whatever rule the city sets, he said.
Choi said he was told the ban would affect the packages for Teuscher's chocolates.
"Until she brought this up, I had on idea what was going on," Choi said. "When they come to us with a one-sided case, you sign it."
One signee from a downtown restaurant, who asked to remain anonymous, said he didn't have strong feelings about a ban on plastic bags of polystyrene containers.
"But she asked me a couple times, so I said, 'Sure.'"
A manager at a local hotel, who also asked to remain anonymous, said: "I signed something about plastic cups, but I can't remember. … We use plastic cups, that's why I signed it."
David King, manager of Su Hong Eatery, confirmed he had signed the letter.
"I just thought that was what the city wanted. I don't really care," he said.
Jugal Shah, who works at the front desk at Palo Alto's Comfort Inn, said a man told him he wouldn't be able to use cups for coffee.
"He was, like, 'It's going to ruin my business,'" Shah said.
Other signees do want to keep plastic bags and Styrofoam containers around.
"Ninety-nine percent of people come in wanting bags," Spot A Pizza Place Manager Vu Tran said. "I don't see why not give them bags. It's convenient. How are you going to hold four sodas if you don't have a bag?"
The Polish Deli's founder Martin Klosek said that many of his customers already bring their own bags but that eliminating plastic bags entirely would be expensive.
"I don't want to pay more money for this," Klosek said.
Eliminating Styrofoam would also be tough for Jamba Juice, Shift Supervisor Chris Nguyen said.
In addition to Dart Container, the city has also received letters of opposition from the American Chemistry Council and the California Restaurant Association, which both denied initiating the letter drive.
The powerful plastic and container industry has mobilized against a movement among local governments to ban their products. Oakland, which banned plastic bags in grocery stores and other large retailers, even faces a lawsuit.
Palo Alto began working on a ban as part of its "zero waste" initiative, an attempt to slash the amount of material headed to the landfill, said Phil Bobel, the city's environmental compliance manager.
But plastic is also energy intensive, petroleum-based and pollutes waterways, even accumulating in a massive clump in the Pacific, threatening fish and other ocean dwellers, Bobel said.
The city is currently conducting a voluntary BYOBag campaign to encourage shoppers to carry purchases in their own, reusable bags.
But at its April 28 meeting, the council will consider a plastic-bag ban, potentially phased in over six months, that would target only carry-out bags at the city's 12 largest groceries and pharmacies.
Eventually, however, Bobel said the city would like to curb the use of Styrofoam containers and other take-out plastic bags, which are commonly spotted as litter.
The American Chemistry Council and other industry groups say that the key to eliminating litter is to boost recycling.
"We think recycling is the answer," American Chemistry Council Director of State Affairs Tim Shestek said.
Plastic bags are "very recyclable and the demand for the material is exceeding the available supply," he said.
A city staff report on the issue states that plastic bag recycling rates are low, despite years of availability and that the bags can clog recyling machinery.
Shestek acknowledged that bags are recycled less frequently than some other materials. He encourages customers to return plastic bags to stores, where the material can be kept clean and pure.
Shestek said the Chemistry Council has been working on "recruiting and involving" local businesses but did not sponsor the recent letter campaign.
Amalia Chamorro, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, said she had heard the campaign was homegrown.
"We did not initiate the petitions, but we definitely support the restaurants," she said.
Lammers said Dart does not have any additional initiatives currently planned for Palo Alto. A family-owned business, Dart Container has revenues topping $1 billion and has a manufacturing facility in Lodi.