Polystyrene containers, those foamy boxes commonly used to store Chinese take-out or to save a sandwich for the road, will soon be taken out of Palo Alto restaurants for good.
The City Council voted Monday night to ban expanded-polystyrene containers from local food establishments. The council voted 8-0, with Yiaway Yeh absent, to approve city staff's proposed ban, which would force restaurants to switch to other forms of containers within a year.
The ordinance, which was passed with little discussion and virtually no opposition, is one component of the city's broader effort to reduce waste and pollution.
Last month, the council voted to ban plastic bags from local supermarkets. But while the plastic-bag ordinance faced major opposition from plastic-bag manufacturers and the grocer lobby, the polystyrene ban passed quickly and without a hiccup.
The only minor point of contention came over the implementation date, with several council members suggesting that the ban should take effect earlier. But Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said staff wanted to give restaurant officers adequate time to use up their available stock of containers.
"We're trying to be prudent and to give it enough time to give businesses a chance to respond," Roberts said. "We simply wanted to give businesses time to make that switch."
With the ban, Palo Alto is joining a growing wave of cities that are banning polystyrene. San Francisco, Oakland and Malibu are among the cities that already have similar bans in place, as do Oregon and Seattle.
In proposing the ban, staff argued that the lightweight polystyrene poses a threat because it breaks up easily, creates litter and doesn't biodegrade. Small chunks often end up in rivers and creeks, where they are occasionally mistaken for food by various marine species, staff told the council Monday.
Staff also estimated that the ban would only affect about 30 percent of local restaurants. The rest, according to a city survey, have already switched to using other types of containers, such as recyclable plastic and paper, or don't use any to-go containers at all.
Councilman Pat Burt pointed to the trend as evidence that most restaurants won't wait a whole year before scrapping polystyrene, but would switch to a more environmentally friendly container once it's time to renew supplies.
"I've already seen a change in practices of many restaurants in town," Burt said. "Looks like the momentum is there."
Earlier in the year, the council received letters from several local restaurant owners who argued that the new ban would cut into their profits and would make it harder for them to operate. But on Monday, only one person spoke on behalf of the restaurant industry.
Amalia Chamorro, who represents the California Restaurant Association, said she was grateful to the staff for hearing the concerns of the local restaurateurs and for giving them a little time before they have to scrap polystyrene altogether.
"We, as an association, don't support mandates to ban certain products," Chamorro said. "But we certainly would work with the council to make sure the restaurant members will comply."