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Hey Palo Altans, how is that plastics ban going?

Uploaded: Feb 2, 2020
As of January 1, plastic straws, utensils, and stirrers are no longer allowed in Palo Alto’s food-service establishments. Plastic produce bags are also banned from grocery stores. Do you miss them? Or does it seem like nothing has changed? I thought I’d take a look around the city and report back on what I saw.

It’s fair to say it’s a mixed bag so far (no pun intended). In some places there isn’t much difference. You can still find plastic straws:

Plastic straws are on display at a variety of places around town

And plastic utensils:

Plastic utensils can be found in many places

And plastic bags:

Plastic bags are still offered in a few grocery stores

One of the store managers was apologetic (“We haven’t received the order codes for the new items yet.”), and one was defiant (“We have inventory we need to use up. The city can close us if they want to.”). In other cases I didn’t ask, but you can see there is some confusion and/or difficulty in complying. As a few proprietors mentioned, the compostable items are 2-3 times the cost of plastic, and opaque paper bags used for produce and other items can slow down the checkout process.

On the other hand, there are some bright spots. Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, for example, has quietly switched over to compostable utensils:

Compostable utensils at Izzy’s

Piazza’s Fine Foods has incorporated compostables throughout its store:

Piazza’s uses a mix of paper and compostable plastic bags, and sells reusable ones

Mollie Stone’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have also switched away from plastic produce bags and utensils.

Rick’s Ice Cream is trying a number of things, including wooden tasting spoons, an optional edible ice cream spoon, and a small discount for those who bring their own spoon. I like how they are embracing the City’s challenge and asking their customers to help out.

Signs at Rick’s encouraging use of compostables and reusable items

A worker at Trader Joe’s who is pretty passionate about this topic stressed how important it is that customers help out. Their store has been fined because the trash is not properly sorted, but “About 99% of that comes from the customers. If they aren’t sorting the trash properly, none of this makes a difference.” The small team at Trader Joe’s doesn’t love having to sort everyone else’s trash. “We are just a few people, and we are being asked to do a lot.”

Despite good signage, there are many non-compostables in Trader Joe’s compost bin.

He reflected that people do seem to care -- they worry if they haven’t brought in their reusable grocery bags -- but then he sees people using one bag for each produce item, or throwing waste in the wrong bins (or leaving it in the carts), and it doesn’t really hang together. Perhaps people need to care more. Or maybe the problem is just too complex. Looking around the store at the pervasive plastic packaging, he added that vendors need to step up. I asked if Trader Joe’s was applying pressure, and he said he thought so, but on a one-off basis. (1) He continued: “If the state did something, that would help. Even a standard set of rules would be nice.” With most of the workers living in other cities, he said they aren’t even familiar with the local disposal rules. “We’re in a transition,” he summarized. The sooner the bigger players can help out (the state, the vendors, the federal government), the faster we will make real progress. (2)

The ultimate goal of Palo Alto’s multi-phase foodware ordinance, which will roll out over the next five years or so, is to eliminate single-use foodware and switch over to reusables. With that in mind, I tried taking my own cup or food container to a few places. Starbucks didn’t blink when I handed them a travel mug for tea (“One bag or two?”). Peet’s made a show of washing out my (clean) mug when I ordered some cocoa, but otherwise seemed okay with it. Rojo’s has no problem filling a cup from home with boba tea. On the food side, Piazza’s didn’t mind when I used a container from home with their self-serve food. Whole Food’s was also okay with it and asked at the checkout what the container weighed, so they could subtract the weight. So don’t be shy about trying this if it’s something you are interested in.

Will this make a difference? According to one estimate, plastic bag use in California has dropped from about 30 billion per year in 2005 to about 1-2 billion per year after the statewide 2016 ban, and fewer bags are found on beaches. So it can help, particularly as similar bans take hold. The effort to pass a state-wide packaging bill seems to have faltered, but a new ballot initiative is underway. In Palo Alto there is much left to do. The city will start auditing food service establishments in the spring, helping them with outreach, education, and technical assistance to bring them into compliance with the new requirements. Then the next step, tentatively slated for 2021, is to (a) ban all remaining plastic disposable foodware (e.g., cups, lids); (b) require establishments to charge for all remaining disposables (to encourage reusables); and (c) require reusable foodware in restaurants. What are your thoughts on that? What would you like to see happen? And what do you make of the changes to date?

Notes and References
1. Trader Joe’s is making some real progress on improved packaging, as they outline here.

2. Plastics bans are taking hold in countries around the world, particularly bag bans, but increasingly single-use items more generally. And it’s not just western countries like France, the rest of Europe, and Canada, but also China, Bangladesh, and many parts of southeast Asia. Enforcement (or lack thereof) is a problem, but we are starting to see some progress.

3. The first phase of Palo Alto’s foodware ordinance is described here. The full proposal can be found in this staff report, with a useful table on page 184.

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Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 8:07 am

I have questions about the "edible" cups, spoons, etc.

What are the calorie counts on these items? What are they made of in terms of animal, vegetable, artificial ingredients? Can they be eaten by those with nut allergies, or strawberry allergies, or vegan? How long can these products be safely consumed without them going bad? Do they have to be stored in hygienically clean containers and handled by staff wearing food preparation gloves?

In other words, if they are consumed as edibles, then they should be treated as a food product and given exactly the same controls as any other food item.

If they have to be individually wrapped, kept clean, labeled with ingredients, etc. are they worth the trouble?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 8:44 am

I recently had to interact with a team of workers from another State, somewhere in the Eastern Time Zone. They just got completely confused with the 3 choices for their trash. They didn't ask for help or read the instructions and when challenged pleaded that they weren't staying in California long enough to worry about learning what to do but said they would try a bit harder next time they had trash to throw out.

We are an area with many visitors from outside the area, the State, the country. In Palo Alto our glass bottles must not be broken to be considered recyclable. In other places I have been, the glass bottles are put into bottle banks according to whether they are clear, green, brown, or blue and the openings to these banks are so high off the ground that the bottles (or other glass containers) break before hitting the bottom. As people sort their bottles and put them in the right places, the sound of breaking glass is considered normal.

Some places are very strict that all cans, glass, plastic containers, etc. are put through the dishwasher before put into recycling.

Malaysia in particular is now returning recycled shipments back to where it came from.

There is no global standard and until such time as this happens there will be remaining problems and mistakes. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it does mean that the practice will not be perfect.

Posted by Mike Alexander, a resident of St. Claire Gardens,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 1:20 pm

If everyone makes a good faith effort to comply with Palo Alto's waste disposal rules, especially for the things one disposes often, it makes a big difference. A 15-30X reduction in single-use plastic bags is impressive testimony to the power of being deliberate.
The rules evolve, so people need to keep up to date on what goes where. The City's "What Goes Where?" web page (Web Link has two posters that are especially helpful:
1. the short list: "What Goes Where Sorting Guide" (Web Link">Web Link
2. the long list: "Detailed Materials Guide" (Web Link">Web Link
Trader Joe's was an early, on-their-own, of green compostable produce bags. They work well, can be disposed of in the green yard waste bin, plus they fit nicely into the countertop food waste boxes the City distributed a couple of years ago. So, getting food waste into the green bin is more convenient, less messy.
Still, there's is lots of unnecessary plastic in TJ's. Especially puzzling to me are their quart and half-gallon milk and juice containers, which could be fully-compostable if they were made only of paper. Some are entirely plastic. Some are paper, but with a plastic spout/cap. According to the City, it's ok to put the spout/cap in the green bin (they are recovered at the end of the composting process), but still, why have them? Switching to all-paper cartons is one way TJ's can make a big difference.
Public trash cans are tough because the general public is hard to train, and trash bin errors are hard to correct. The choices need to be simple and intuitive. Having just 2 bins in public places, one for Bottles and Cans and one for Everything Else might work better for everyone.
Finally, how clean do materials need to be? Not dishwasher clean. In Palo Alto, bottles, jars, cans must be empty. If needed, wipe with a paper towel to get bulk or grimy residue (paper towel to green bin). There's a City web page for this, too, under "Zero Waste Projects", called "Recycle-Ready."

Posted by E S Field, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 4:28 pm

The compostable forks used in many food-service outlets may be environmentally correct, but they are not safe for human users. The tines can break off during chewing, resulting in mouth wounds and risk of swallowing "good" plastic. Managers listen sympathetically, but the hazard has continued for a year. Could someone please find and recommend a SAFE version?

Posted by MP Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 4:57 pm

The best safe compostable utensils IMO are bamboo chopsticks. Cheap, very renewable resource (Bamboo grows very quickly and just about anywhere), and they are actually fit for purpose.

Posted by paul, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 5:39 pm

Start with giving real refunds for recycle goods. the 5c per can and bottle should be refunded at the store, that would make sure everyone brings their bottles and can back. Next do the same with plastic, have a 5 c tax refundable at the store, you can do the same with paper bags.

For CO2, start taking clear offsets from solar panels, and give CO2 credits to people that drive less.

Posted by DC, a resident of another community,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 6:11 pm

Bring your own spoon? Material left in the open with no protective covering? The concept of share the germs may help the world but it also is something we do not need with the world virus spreading. As for alternate plastic bag use, they were once great for containing the things you did not want spilled allover the community. You can say the 2nd use was great for a #2

Posted by Pied Piper, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 6:36 pm

Pied Piper is a registered user.

Which is the business that had the audacity to say that the city could shut them down if they wanted? Let's find out and complain to their management and also let them know that their patronage will suffer as a result.

Posted by Joke laws in PA, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 8:05 pm

I just do my shopping in MV, where some semblance of sanity still prevails. The Palo Alto attitude of “ we have to show the world how things are done, since we are smarter" is a joke. If only they would show the same initiative to meet their housing obligations.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 8:11 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Wow, thanks for all the comments! I need something to get my mind off of that football game :)

You can read more about the spoons they have at Rick’s here. Below is a picture of them. The plain one (on the right) tastes like a bad cracker but the chocolate one (second from left) isn’t bad. (That’s a wooden tasting spoon between them, and a wrapper for an edible spoon on the left.) The site says they are coming out with a vanilla spoon soon, which should be a better fit for ice cream than the plain one. The spoons are made of grains (wheat, oat, corn, etc). The FAQ has information about shelf life, allergens, etc.

@Resident, that’s a good point about the visitors. I wonder how/if waste sorting works in airports!

@Mike, thanks for all the pointers. One thing I wonder is if local businesses are reluctant to host trash cans because of the sorting overhead.

@ES, I am no expert but it looks like there are lots of kinds of compostable utensils. Have you tried Repurpose? They are available locally, or on Amazon, and look to be low-cost and heavy-duty. Another option might be to carry some reusables, maybe something like this, with you.

@paul, I remember reading somewhere that instead of having frequent flyer programs, we should have infrequent flyer programs…

@Pied, I don’t want to be the “plastic police”, but if you know something about the city and what’s going on, you can guess which business that was.

@Joke, fwiw, much of the world is ahead of us on this. I don't think we're showing anyone anything they don't already know, at least outside of the US. See footnote 2 above.

Posted by Glen, a resident of Woodside,
on Feb 2, 2020 at 11:44 pm

I've been waiting to see a decent compostable bag, but so far the only ones I've come across (mostly at TJs) are pretty terrible. They tear very easily, and once torn they are rendered useless by ordinary handling (eg, by a checker). I've tried doubling up, though that seems counter-productive, but even that doesn't work.

Has anyone seen decent compostable bags? Seems like the stuff that's out there is definitely compostable, but not much of a bag.

Posted by MP Resident, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 3, 2020 at 4:56 am

Since we like regulations - how about regulating that no disposable or edible items intended for food related uses may contain big-8 allergens?

Those spoons made of wheat are going to make some unsuspecting person really sick.

Posted by ihatenpr, a resident of Woodside,
on Feb 3, 2020 at 9:50 am

Many moons ago there were environmentally safe eating utensils and packing materials that were quite common and worked well(wax paper grocery bags and wooden utensils such as ice cream spoons at the Dairy Queen).

The problem is idealism vs pragmatism.
Most paper bags you get at the grocery stores are flimsy (handles break quite easily)and when they become wet (condensation or an egg breaks)they become even more fragile and crash,your groceries spill out on the ground.

So why not mandate a utilitarian bag like a waxed paper bag if you going to ban plastic?
Nah,that would be too simple.

Posted by Janice Dorizensky, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 3, 2020 at 10:33 am

We use 13 gallon UNNI compostable bags at home and recently got 4 gallon ones to take to the grocery store to use for wet produce and meats. These bags are thicker than all others I've seen, and they do not break/leak/etc.

UNNI ASTM D6400 100% Compostable Trash Bags, 4 Gallon, 15 Liter, 100 Count, Extra Thick 0.75 Mils, Small Garbage Bags,Wastebasket Bin Liners, US BPI and Europe OK Compost Home Certified, San Francisco

Posted by I hadn't noticed a bit, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Feb 3, 2020 at 10:53 am

I guess that's good. Carry on.

Posted by Let's Reduce Waste, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Feb 3, 2020 at 10:14 pm

Thank you for this article! I am passionate about this and often carry take out containers, coffee cups, bags, utensils, etc. Most restaurants are happy to put take out in containers you bring. Same for cafes, etc. Most businesses are supportive of efforts to reduce waste. I specify for coffee that I want it "for here" in a ceramic cup. Drinking Machiato saves calories and can be drunk quickly if no time for sit down coffee. For parties if needing extra plates and glasses, I buy them at Goodwill for the same price as disposables and keep them on hand for future events. Clothes can be rented online and/or bought at thrift shops. Let's share more ideas on how to reduce waste. Make it a game. We have to for the planet.

Posted by pearl, a resident of another community,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 10:11 am

pearl is a registered user.

Go here to get information about plastic waste: 4ocean.com

Posted by Barbara, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Decent compostable bags are a joke! Whole Foods has gone that direction and the bags need to be "treated with water" before opening, and they are a problem for the checkout employees since trying to read the codes on produce is next to impossible without opening the bag!! Are they really necessary? Methinks NO!

Posted by I don't miss plastic., a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 12:51 pm

I don't miss plastic. is a registered user.

I use a reusable box with a metal fork and spoon and fabric napkin for my lunch every day and a thermos, like I did in grade school. I pack my lunch from leftovers the night before. I save a LOT of money and garbage waste doing this. I bring my own reusable grocery bags and washable produce net bags to the store. I have been doing this forever. My dear grandma used to say, "Waste not, want not." It's a good old adage, and very important advice for our time.

I don't miss the disposable plastic junk at all. I also enjoy riding my bike for trips that are shorter than five miles. It's not that hard--even for an old geezer like me. I love this planet. Let's join together to preserve Eden--the one planet we are perfectly adapted to live on.

Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 2:56 pm

As a recycler and repurposer for many decades, I appreciate the effort, but as usual, the zealous ordinance writers seem to be blind to the obvious.

When I go to the grocery store to purchase produce I'd like to select my own without a giant plastic clam shell to pollute. When I discovered that this new one eliminated all the plastic bags in the produce section and asked about it, I was told I was supposed to bring them from home. How does that even work? Am I supposed to use one that's been used over and over again which is clearly going to transfer contaminants?

Are only the mindless allowed to make laws these days?

Posted by Facing The Reality of Everyday Life & It's Misguided Priorities, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 3:54 pm

People might be better served by abandoning (or curtailing) their seemingly plastic lives & priorities.

No explanation needed (except for the utterly clueless who aren't going to change anyway).

Posted by Midtown Local, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 4, 2020 at 6:44 pm

Midtown Local is a registered user.

@Elizabeth: As a matter of fact, I've been reusing plastic produce bags for years. I haven't noticed "contaminants" being a problem on my new produce. When the bag gets too grungy or torn up, I recycle it.

But I think what the proponents have in mind as the most sustainable solution is acquiring a collection of mesh bags and bringing them to the grocery for produce, the way we do with cloth bags for all of the groceries. The compostable bags seem to be better for the environment than plastic, but don't sound so reusable; they may be best thought of as a backup in case we don't have enough mesh bags with us.

Posted by Novelera, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 5, 2020 at 11:41 am

Novelera is a registered user.

Piazza's having the green compostable bags for produce suits me very well. I had been buying them to put in the little compost buckets the city gave out a couple of years ago. I've cut down to the point (OK, I live alone.) that I can go 3-4 weeks before putting anything in the black garbage bin. Now I have enough compostable bags from Piazza that I don't need to buy them. A win-win.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 5, 2020 at 11:59 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@LetsReduceWaste and @IDontMissPlastic -- Great points. I was really annoyed when I started to use reusable grocery bags. I couldn’t remember them to save my life. But now I like them much better because they are big and they don’t rip. (I use these, which I love, because they are roomy and double-handled.) As you point out, it’s also much nicer to eat food with a real fork than with a plastic or compostable one, and they are easy to keep in the car. Same with a mug. Same with all the reusables for school lunches. It’s just nicer to use a thermos and real containers and utensils. I guess washing is the downside, but it’s not a big deal for us. Anyway, it’s funny how quickly we got used to the reusable totes, reusable lunch stuff, composting, etc, and now we prefer it. That is why I am eager for our family to keep building newer/greener habits, because at least so far it has been easy and it works.

@Novelera -- Good idea! If you remember, tell them thank you, because I think this switch can be a nuisance for stores.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 9, 2020 at 8:49 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Incidentally, a friend of mine wrote: "I'm not a huge fan of those new compostable bags in Piazza's produce section! They make all of my (already overly expensive) produce wither so quickly!"

I noticed that as well -- anyone else? A few months ago I started putting my lettuce and green onions and carrots (if not already in a bag) in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, which I reuse and occasionally wash out. Maybe some refrigerators have veggie drawers that keep these items fresh without plastic, but mine doesn't seem to be one of those...

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