Polystyrene on its way out of Palo Alto

City's ban on foamy take-out containers begins on Earth Day

Polystyrene containers are making a permanent exodus from Palo Alto's food establishments this Thursday -- the latest target in that city's war against Bay pollutants.

Palo Alto's ban on the foamy take-out containers is scheduled to go in effect on Earth Day. The City Council approved the ban last May, at around the time its ban on plastic bags at supermarkets went into effect.

But unlike the bag ban, which has a relatively narrow scope, the polystyrene ban would be applied to restaurants, cafeterias, sidewalk and outdoor vendors and caterers, according to a report from Public Works Department associate engineer Karin North.

The report characterizes polystyrene containers as a product full of "hidden costs" for the public and the environment. It degrades slowly in nature, is hard to contain and often ends up in local creeks, the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, North said. It also makes up 15 percent of the litter found in storm drains, the report stated.

"Expanded polystyrene foam presents unique management issues because it is lightweight, floats, resists biodegradation, and easily breaks into small pieces," North wrote. "These small pieces can be ingested by marine wildlife, leading to reduced appetite and nutrient absorption and possible death by starvation."

Phil Bobel, the city's environmental compliance manager, said staff tried to recycle polystyrene but found the cost too high and the demand too low. He said food vendors were alerted last year that the ban would take affect, giving them time to phase out their existing stock of the foamy containers.

The outreach may explain why there was seemingly no opposition to the ban. Not a single person spoke out against the new ban Monday night. Bobel said staff hosted numerous public hearings on the polystyrene ban and mailed out several reminders to businesses. He said no one had any serious objections to the proposed ban.

He said the city would make sure its larger businesses are complying with the ban when staff visits these businesses through other programs. The city will deal with smaller businesses "on a complaint basis," Bobel said.

"I really think we'll find a high level of compliance," Bobel said. "Where we don't, we'll be asking people in a nice way to discontinue it as soon as possible."

Though the city can levy a $200 fine on those who don't comply, Bobel said he doesn't "envision any enforcement actions as necessary."

Council members were full of praise for the new ban. Greg Scharff said he was excited about the new polystyrene ban, while Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa praised staff for its outreach efforts to the community.

"This has been well communicated and the roll-out has been smooth," Espinosa said.


Like this comment
Posted by Caryn Coleman
a resident of Castro City
on Apr 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Good news!

Like this comment
Posted by MCasau
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Let's hope surrounding cities will join Palo Alto!

Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 21, 2010 at 9:43 pm

meanwhile garbage of all sorts sits all over university ave.

looks worse than a school campus after lunch.

Like this comment
Posted by Grammar police
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

"the ban would take affect" should be "effect"

Like this comment
Posted by Michael
a resident of Castro City
on Apr 24, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I remember when everyone turned to XPS in order to "save a tree" and help the ecology. I remember when everybody turned to polyunsaturated fat to save themselves from lard. I remember when we lowered the speed limits because we needed to conserve gasoline. I remember when leaders of government and industry said, "you cannot run our nation's economy on just consumerism." I remember when newspaper articles were edited for content and grammar. Alas, all those useless memories.

Like this comment
Posted by reader
a resident of another community
on Apr 24, 2010 at 8:19 pm

useless indeed

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

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