Palo Alto sharply escalated its war on plastic waste Monday night, when the City Council passed a ban on straws, utensils, produce bags and other single-use items that routinely bypass the sorting process and end up in the creeks.
In addition, the council declared its intent to advance next year additional laws requiring food establishments to charge customers for single-use cups and to only offer reusable foodware for dining in.
By a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Tom DuBois absent, the council approved restrictions that will put the city in the vanguard of a growing number of municipalities looking to cut back on plastic use. Chuck Muir, manager of the environmental control program in the Public Works Department, said the new regulations make Palo Alto the first city in the South Bay to prohibit single-use plastic foodware items (San Francisco and Malibu have similar restrictions in place). They would also make Palo Alto the first city in the Bay Area to ban plastic produce bags from grocery stores and farmers markets.
The new rules will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
City officials have been exploring restrictions on plastic since at least 2016, when the City Council adopted its first Sustainability/Climate Action Plan. A major component of the plan is the Zero Waste Policy, which the council adopted in 2018 and which sets a goal of diverting 95% of the city's waste from landfills by 2030.
The ban on straws picked up momentum a year ago, thanks to a coordinated campaign by the city and Girl Scout Troop #60016, which conducted outreach to local restaurants and received commitments from more than three dozen of them to only offer plastic straws upon request. In response, the council declared May 2018 as "plastic straw awareness month."
On Monday, with the Girl Scoop troop and dozens of other residents in attendance, an enthusiastic council agreed that the city should do what it can to reduce plastic waste.
"We're here because single-use plastic is polluting our environment on an unprecedented scale and unfortunately this is only predicted to increase," said resident Gloria Garcia, who represented a group of residents requesting new regulations on plastic.
While no one spoke against the new restrictions, Garcia and others made the case that the city isn't going far — or fast — enough. Public Works staff had proposed adopting new restrictions in three phases, with the first phase covering plastic straws, utensils, drink stirrers and plastic produce bags. Future phases would include all disposable plastic foodware — initially for dining in (phase two) and ultimately for takeout (phase three). The second phase will also entail charging customers for non-reusable cups and containers.
Under staff's proposed timeline, the second phase would begin in 2021 and the third phase wouldn't launch until 2025.
Miriam Gordon, California director for the nonprofit Clean Water Action, was one of several speakers who requested that the council move faster and adopt all three phases immediately.
"If this is the plan, why not put the things in the ordinance now?" Gordon asked. "It would be a good idea to give business notice — that these things are coming."
Some on the council shared her sense of urgency. Councilwoman Alison Cormack said she'd like to see the city move faster on some of the proposals, specifically charging residents for single-use cups. The restriction, she noted, has the advantage of getting customers — as well as businesses — involved in changing behavior.
"There's a proposal for 25 cents. That might make people rethink whether or not they want to remember to bring their reusable cup," Cormack said.
While others agreed that such a policy is laudable, Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel said the city needs more time to create a system for charging.
The only quibbles came over the details. Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford requested that the new laws exempt patient rooms, an exception that city staff agreed to make (the hospitals would still be required to comply with the regulations in their cafeterias and other common dining areas).
Ryan Globus, a Midtown resident whose mother is quadriplegic, suggested that the ban on plastic straws consider people with disabilities, many of whom depend on plastic straws at restaurants. Rather than banning them, the city should make plastic straws only available upon request, Globus suggested in an email.
"Compostable straws slowly dissolve and become ineffective within minutes. As my mother depends on someone else to hold the drink near her for her to drink via straw, it can take her 30 or more minutes to finish a drink, which is too long for a compostable straw," Globus wrote.
While the new law does not make an exception for residents with disabilities, Bobel said staff will address this concern when it creates regulations for enforcing the new ordinance.
Ultimately, the council agreed to follow staff's recommendations and adopt only the first of three phases. In addition to the bans on plastic utensils and plastic produce bags (businesses would still be allowed to offer compostable bags, which some already do), the new rules also require businesses to provide receipts only upon request.
The passage of the ordinance was never in doubt. After hearing from the Girl Scouts and lauding their leadership, the council moved ahead with adopting the foodware ordinance. Councilwoman Liz Kniss called the new ordinance an "incredible step" in the city's environmental efforts. Mayor Eric Filseth agreed.
"I think we can live without plastic straws," Filseth said.