In Palo Alto, say goodbye to polystyrene
As ban starts on foamy, take-out containers, city also sets ambitious goals for reducing water use, carbon emissions
Polystyrene containers made a permanent exodus from Palo Alto's food establishments Thursday — the latest target in the city's war against bay pollutants.
The City Council approved the ban on the foamy, take-out containers last May, at around the time the city's ban on plastic bags at supermarkets went into effect. But unlike the bag ban, which has a relatively narrow scope, the polystyrene ban applies to restaurants, cafeterias, sidewalk and outdoor vendors and caterers, according to a report from the Public Works Department.
Polystyrene is full of "hidden costs" for the public and the environment, the report states. It degrades slowly in nature, is hard to contain and often ends up in local creeks, the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, according to the report.
The containers also make up 15 percent of the litter found in storm drains and can accidentally be eaten by marine wildlife, the report states.
Recycling polystyrene is cost prohibitive, according to Phil Bobel, the city's environmental-compliance manager.
Food vendors were alerted last year that the ban would take effect, giving them time to phase out their existing stock of the foamy containers. There have been no serious objections from business owners, Bobel said.
Though the city can levy a $200 fine on those who don't comply, Bobel said he doesn't expect that will be necessary. The city will ensure larger businesses conform to the ban when staff visits the businesses through other programs; smaller businesses will be handled on a complaint basis, he said.
This week, the city also set ambitious new goals for conserving fresh water and reducing carbon emissions from city operations.
On Monday night, the City Council unanimously agreed to reduce the city's emissions by 20 percent between 2005 (the baseline year) and 2020. The council then agreed to adopt a new target of reducing citywide consumption of potable water by 20 percent between now and 2020.
Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa called the new water mandate a "good first step" for a city with an abundance of lush lawns and one of the highest levels of per-capita water consumption in the Bay Area.
Mayor Pat Burt and council members Yeh, Larry Klein and Gail Price had advocated a 30 percent reduction goal but were outvoted by their five colleagues. The council then voted unanimously to approve a 20 percent goal and directed staff to return in a year with an update on the city's progress and recommendations, with a fresh analysis of the latest water trends.
A detailed staff report estimated that the city has saved $530,000 over the past year by reducing its electricity, natural gas, solid waste and paper consumption.
Palo Alto has reduced its emissions in these areas by 11 percent between 2005 and 2009, far surpassing the 5 percent mandate set by the City Council in December 2007.
Karl Von Orsdol, the city's energy-risk manager, said the city has given each department an energy budget and is monitoring the department's energy use.
The city also adopted 121 emission-reduction initiatives, most of which would come at no cost to the city. City workers were encouraged to conserve energy, recycle solid waste and use public transit to get to work, according to a staff report.
Von Orsdol said staff is also taking a fresh look at the city's vehicle fleet in light of a recent finding by the City Auditor's office that about a third of city vehicles aren't even driven 2,500 annual miles, the city's minimum-usage threshold.
The audit recommended scrapping the current system, which allocates vehicles to individual departments, in favor of a citywide vehicle pool that would be shared by departments.
The council enthusiastically agreed with staff's recommendations to set the new goals, particularly given the economic benefits of the proposed initiatives. Councilman Yiaway Yeh said the detailed data presented by staff proved that "going green" need not be costly.
The new goals are but two of several new "environmental" benchmarks adopted by the council in recent weeks.
On April 6, the council's Finance Committee recommended adopting a new 10-year energy-efficiency plan that would reduce citywide electricity consumption by 7.2 percent by 2020 through a variety of energy-efficiency programs. The full council is scheduled to discuss the plan at its next meeting on May 4.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.