In Palo Alto, say goodbye to polystyrene | April 23, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 23, 2010

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

by Gennady Sheyner

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


Like this comment
Posted by Susan Stansbury
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

Well done, Palo Alto staff! Polystyrene containers are both unsightly and a huge marine problem. It is great to see the end of them in Palo Alto. Hopefully many other communities will follow your lead!

Like this comment
Posted by rem
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 20, 2010 at 11:23 am

And just what are they/we going to use for "doggy bagging". In other words what is going to be used for "take home" and carry out!!!!

Oh well, I quit going to downtown Palo Alto years ago.. University Street has priced itself out of business. Then there is the traffic and the parking problem....

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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2010 at 11:55 am

Rem, it's calleD P-A-P-E-R. Starbucks uses it, so does Su-Hong's and Scott's and just about everybody else. I think McD's has switched over. It's NO problem.

Like this comment
Posted by More enforcement
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Yes, but we can still bring in and dispose of polystytrene from neighboring cities. We need a complete ban on possession with check points set up at all entrances in the city to confiscate and arrest residents with polystyrene in their possesion.

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Posted by cieboy
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Rem use a bicycle! Lots of parking available for bikes....via bike friendly Bryant Ave to get to University...

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Posted by Wha?
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

Oh I am waiting for the comments on how this is an infringement on people's rights and unconstitutional! I am so fatigued by all this nonesense. The containers in question are bad for all of us on the planet. Please stop thinking only within the confines of your own little heads. So Palo Alto!

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2010 at 8:29 pm

It would be nice to see the research upon which these Big Brother laws are based. Is the departments research based upon, well, its own limited Googling? Or did they gather some peer reviewed articles upon which to base this decision?

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Posted by Freida
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 21, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Yea!!!! Good job Palo Alto City Council.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2010 at 3:07 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

None of the substitutes for polystyrene have the insulating value of polystyrene, and so the consumer is denied the comfort of hot coffee, cold soda or a warm burger. Once again, the convenience of the consumer is left out of the equation. I am a bit peckish on this issue because the paper handle of my paper grocery bag came off yesterday when I was carrying my purchases in through the rain. Time to grease up the tumbrels again, the aristocracy has pushed us peasants too far.

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Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This change delights me as well - thanks Palo Alto - and Walter, I have actually found the biodegradable packaging is more soothing to my hands, strong, insulating. I count this as an environmental win and consumer win! I will buy my takeout in Palo Alto where I know the restaurants - now with food waste composting as well - are working hard to improve their environmental footprint with their tasty food. Happy Earth Day!

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Posted by Natty
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 22, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Too bad palo alto doesn't recycle polystyrene. It recycles beter than most of the things we put in the blue bins.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.