Plastic straws, disposable utensils and beverage stirrers may soon be on their way out of Palo Alto as part of the city's new effort to protect creeks and reduce the amount of landfill-bound waste.
The City Council is scheduled to consider on Monday night a package of laws targeting plastic foodware items and produce bags. If the council supports the staff proposal, the thin, light produce and meat bags would become illegal at local grocery stores and farmers markets, though these establishments would be allowed to provide compostable bags.
The proposed laws are part of a broad regional trend away from single-use plastic foodware. San Francisco, Berkeley, Alameda and Malibu are among the cities that have banned plastic straws and require compostable straws to be provided only upon request. The state Legislature also is considering a proposal, Assembly Bill 1884, that would require full-service restaurants in California to only provide straws upon request, though it exempts fast-food restaurants.
Palo Alto would also join San Francisco and Malibu in prohibiting other single-use foodware items, including spoons, forks and knives. It would go beyond those two cities, however, in its requirement that produce and meat bags be compostable or reusable.
According to a new report from the Public Works Department, the purpose of the new laws is to reduce litter and protect the city's waterways and environment. While most plastics are recyclable, small items like straws and stirrers are generally not recoverable at the city's sorting facility because they fall through the screens and end up in landfill, according to the report.
"These items pose waste-management challenges that can persist in the environment for many years, causing harm to wildlife and blight to waterways," the report states. "Plastic discards are being found in rivers, bays, oceans and are a littler nuisance and an environmental hazard to marine animals who often mistake pieces of plastic for food."
The new proposals intend to build on Palo Alto's earlier efforts to reduce creek-bound waste. In 2013, the council banned plastic bags from local restaurants and stores, though the prohibition exempted produce bags. Last year, the council also publicly supported the "Straw Awareness Campaign" launched by Girl Scout Troop #60016 to reduce plastic-straw pollution. In an April presentation, the Girl Scouts emphasized the impact of straws on marine life, noting that straws and stirrers are among the top 10 items of debris found on beaches.
As part of that monthlong campaign, 37 local restaurants — including Hobee's, Dan Gordon, Paxti's and The Counter — pledged to provide straws only upon request.
Staff also expects the proposed ban to reduce the level of contaminants in the city's green containers, given that all utensils from local businesses would now be compostable. In addition, the compostable produce bags would become available to residents to use as compost bucket liners, the report states.
Similarly, any grocery store or farmers market that provides disposable bags for meat or produce would need to ensure that these bags are compostable.
The change would come at a cost to local businesses and, ultimately, consumers. Public Works staff estimates that a compostable foodware item costs between 1 and 2 cents more than the familiar plastic item. Compostable produce bags are estimated to cost between 9 and 15 cents more per bag than regular produce bags, the report states.
The ban on disposable foodware will include some exceptions. The Public Works director may exempt a food-service establishment from the requirements for up to a year if the business demonstrates that complying would cause "undue hardship." There also will be an exemption for emergency supplies, which would have to be approved by the city manager.
Palo Alto officials have been conducting outreach, including in-person surveys, emails and phone calls, to the city's more than 400 restaurants since December. According to staff, restaurant owners said they were concerned about the additional cost of switching to compostable foodware items. At the same time, about a third of respondents said they already use some compostable foodware and 52% said it would be easy to switch to compostable items, the Public Works report states.
The city also received a request last month from Stanford Health Care, asking that hospitals be exempted from the new foodware requirements. In a letter to the city, Nancy Olson, chief government and community relations officer at Stanford Health Care, and Sherri Sager, chief government and community relations officer at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, said that in some cases, they would not be able to meet the requirements.
"For example, plastic is currently required to properly care for certain of our patients," the May 23 letter states. "Changes to foodware can be complicated in a hospital environment, as all potential changes must be evaluated for patient impact, workplace violence risk, as well as compliance with multiple state and federal health regulations."
The letter notes that paper straws do not work for patients who need to bend them or to drink more slowly due to their compromised health and that plastic supplies may be required to continue to serve patients during power outages that impact dishwashers.
Others are cheering the proposed ban. The environmental advocacy groups, Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, lauded the city's actions and pushed them to go even further and immediately adopt additional restrictions that Palo Alto was reserving for later phases. These include requirements that local food service establishments charge for non-reusable cups and containers, use reusable foodware for dine-in orders and install dishwashers (the city plans to move ahead with these in 2021). Palo Alto also is proposing a third phase of the ordinance, targeted for 2025, that would require food service establishments to supply reusable foodware for takeout orders.
Reducing single-use products in food service settings is not only good for the environment, but is also good for business, a letter from the two nonprofits states.
"Participating businesses are saving thousands of dollars per year when they implement measures to reduce single-use packaging and transition to reusable food service," the letter states.