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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Are you ready to ditch disposables?

Uploaded: May 29, 2022

Two years ago, in February 2020, I wrote about Palo Alto’s efforts to eliminate small plastic items at restaurants (straws, utensils), and more generally limit single-use disposable foodware. Then the pandemic hit and with it came an explosion of takeout and disposable trash. I followed up recently with Paula Borges, a project manager for Palo Alto’s Zero Waste program, to see how the waste reduction efforts are going these days.

Image from Wikimedia

Palo Alto is lucky to have a passionate and committed team of people working to help the city’s residents and businesses reduce waste. It’s not an easy problem, but we are sick of generating so much trash. The city has a long tradition of leadership in waste reduction, being among the first to introduce recycling and then composting. But recycling and composting have their limits and incur a monthly cost for utility customers. One year of composting costs the city $2.3 million, and one year of recycling about $600,000. While we know that our composting works well, the city has been unable to verify that the mixed paper and rigid plastic (#3-8) we send overseas actually gets recycled. It could instead be getting landfilled or, worse, ending up in waterways or in loose piles on the land.

Image from Wikimedia

We want our recycling to be recycled so, as the Weekly recently described, Palo Alto is considering recycling those items in the United States. (1) We hope this would help to encourage more domestic markets, because other cities are interested as well, but it would at least temporarily increase the cost of our recycling to about $1.8 million, closer to what we spend for composting. (2)

This helps explain why the city’s parallel efforts to encourage Reduce and Reuse are so important. Not only does this keep our waste and our waste costs down, but reusing items also frees up the resources that would otherwise be needed to make new products. The city is doing a lot to help us with this, and today’s post focuses on how we can tackle the single-use disposables at restaurants that are overflowing our bins.

When I first wrote about this two years ago, Palo Alto had banned small plastic disposables (straws, utensils, bags) and was setting up to eliminate all disposables (plastic or not) at dine-in establishments, as well as any plastic containers used for takeout. (3) Borges said that with the pandemic, these plans were quickly put on hold. “The pandemic threw a curveball at the foodware ordinance. There was a fear of germs spreading and the restaurants had to focus on other things, like serving food safely, moving dining outdoors, and more. We wanted to cut them a break.” Even today there is no proactive enforcement of the plastics ban, though the city does follow up when there are complaints.

Our Zero Waste staff is finding other ways to move forward. The state recently passed AB 1276, which requires utensils, straws, and condiments to be served only on customer request. Online apps must allow customers to order them individually, and they must be opt-in. Items cannot be bundled. The city is holding meetings with stakeholders so it can determine how best to update its foodware ordinance to be in compliance with this new regulation.

More ambitious is the work the city is doing with a consultant, Rethink Disposable, to help restaurants that are interested in switching from single-use takeout and dine-in disposables to reusable items. Borges highlights the leadership of Tootsie’s in the Stanford Barn (and now Cantor Arts Museum). Proprietor Rocco Scordella was determined to reduce waste when he saw his trash cans filling up with takeout containers during the pandemic. He signed up with a foodware delivery service, analogous to a linen service, that would deliver dishes and then pick them up, clean them and return them. “It was amazing”, he said about the result in an interview with Marcia Gagliardi for Upstream. “Guests and customers are ready for a change. They understand that it is a problem.” He added that despite a $1 surcharge for the reusable containers, “I don’t think a single person has made a complaint about getting a container instead of a to-go box… People think it’s time to do something about this.” When compared with disposable compostable containers, the dish service Tootsie’s was using estimated it was generating 73% fewer emissions, 89% less waste, and using 70% less water.

The biggest problem Scordella had was getting people to return the containers, though he said that got better over time. Unfortunately, the service he was working with (DishCraft) recently went out of business, so he is looking for a new option.

Image from ReThink Disposable

Anh Nguyen of Oakland’s Cam Anh has been working with ReThink Disposable, and is effusive about the benefits of reusable foodware. She says customers like it because the food stays warmer for longer and tastes better. The “old ladies in the kitchen” have a much easier time taking out the trash, and they are no longer subject to fines when their bins are too full. Her restaurant is also saving money. Grace Lee of ReThink Disposable estimates that Cam Anh is keeping 32,140 pieces, or 860 pounds, out of trash each year, and saving about $1800. Nguyen said the savings have been helpful during the pandemic.

In Palo Alto, Borges mentions that Jing Jing, World Wrappes, and Kung Fu Tea are looking to replace some of their disposables with reusables. ReThink Disposable also did some work with Oren’s Hummus and Kirk’s Steakburgers before the pandemic. (Check out the links to learn more about what they did and the results they saw.)

We are seeing progress towards reusables in cafes as well. Two years ago Coupa Cafe and Verve were trialing reusable cups with the CupClub service (now ClubZero), and Borges says that Coupa and Blue Bottle are looking into something similar now. She is also thrilled that Starbucks has announced ambitions to move away from disposables. Starbucks encourages customers today to bring in their own mugs, offering a discount and using a carefully designed process. But in Seattle and elsewhere the company is trialing reusable cups that customers can borrow and then return at any Starbucks store.

Starbucks is testing reusable cups (“borrow-a-cup”) in certain locations. Source: Starbucks

In a test in South Korea, where the stores took away the disposable cups entirely, Starbucks estimates it diverted 200,000 cups from landfill in just three months.

Starbucks customers return borrowed cups in bins. Source: Starbucks

Borges says: “This is huge. It will have a really big domino effect in making reusables acceptable.” This could accelerate the market for foodware services and begin to lead us away from a throwaway culture.

I asked a barista at a Peet’s in Palo Alto if they are switching to reusables, but she was not aware of any efforts. She mentioned that their disposables are compostable, but acknowledged the cost of producing and then composting each of those cups.

Palo Alto will soon be hosting a brunch for restaurants to learn more about adopting reusable foodware, through their partnership with Rethink Disposable. Silicon Valley Reduces is another local non-profit that is trying to help businesses encourage customers to bring their own foodware.

Palo Alto’s efforts to encourage reuse go well beyond foodware at restaurants. Here is a brief update.

1. City-wide yard sale. This year’s yard sale, happening on Saturday June 4, has over 220 participants signed up. Borges is happy to say that is even more than pre-covid levels. Stop by to see what you can find!

2. Hazardous waste reuse. The Hazardous Waste Station at 2501 Embarcadero Way has a reuse area that Borges says is very popular. “People seem to love it. They take paint, sprays, furniture polish, whatever is brought that the hazardous waste staff believes to be safe and reusable.”

Image source: City of Palo Alto

3. Party packs. The party packs, each serving 24 people, help residents to eliminate disposables at casual parties and other events. Borges says use dropped off precipitously during the pandemic, in large part because there were fewer parties, but she hopes to see it pick back up as there are more outdoor gatherings.

Image source: City of Palo Alto

4. Cleanup Days. Palo Alto residents now get two Cleanup Days per year. Borges says participation is great, close to 40%, while when residents had to call to schedule it was around 2%. During Cleanup Days, the city offers to take in “gently used” items and find new homes for them. This has had mixed success. Many stores that took reusable items have closed, and items are not always of suitable quality. Residents can be unhappy when they see their loved items thrown away. Borges says that not all items are marketable, and a driver in a truck that picks up reusables makes the decision on what qualifies. Other avenues for used items are Freecycle, Nextdoor, Facebook’s “Buy Nothing” groups, and Goodwill.

I’d love to hear what you think about ditching disposables in restaurants and cafes, and what you think of the city’s other efforts to help us Reduce and Reuse rather than Recycle.

Notes and References

1. Palo Alto recycles cardboard overseas as well. Cardboard makes up about 40% of our recycling, and two-thirds of what we send overseas. But the markets for used cardboard are effective and profitable, so we are comfortable with how this component of our recycling stream is being handled.

2. There will be a vote at the June 6 City Council meeting on whether to proceed with negotiating a contract. (The expense itself is not approved with this vote.) You can find the relevant staff report here.

The city has also piloted composting some of the mixed paper. Whether that can be scaled depends on whether the Z-Best composting facility that we use can find a good market for the material.

3. See table on page 184 of this staff report.

Current Climate Data (April 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 29, 2022 at 8:00 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Two points.

Clean Up Days. They don't recycle anything, all goes into the same trash truck and then compacted, breaking the items while the owners watch!

What do you think about the trend for period panties, many of our young women are using? The idea is that these panties have to be throughly rinsed to get rid of all blood before being washed "in the normal way". The amount of water used to thoroughly rinse these before normal washing is a bad idea in California, in my humble opinion.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 29, 2022 at 8:06 am

Bystander is a registered user.

P.S. Here's a link to an article about period panties for those unfamiliar with the concept. Web Link

Posted by Eddie, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on May 29, 2022 at 5:26 pm

Eddie is a registered user.

Great post - you focus a lot on what restaurants can do, but there are also things that customers can do. When you go to a restaurant, do you ever take your leftovers home? If so, bring your own plastic containers (like my family does).

Your focus is mostly on restaurants, but I'd also like to encourage the use of reusable produce bags. I go to the California Ave. farmers market every Sunday, and over the years I've seen fewer than 5 other customers that use reusable produce bags.

Finally, bringing your own mug to your favorite cafe. I think Peets gives you a 10 cent discount. The discount needs to be higher. And I hope that everyone reading this blog goes to Peets web site and asks them to follow Starbucks lead with using reusable cups. When Peets disallowed bringing your own mug during the pandemic, I (like many others) got hooked on Peets' to-go app (order your coffee from home, and it's ready when you get there). But now, we should all bring our own mugs. Sure, it might take 3-5 extra minutes - but do you really not have those 3-5 extra minutes to spare? The future of our planet is worth it.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on May 30, 2022 at 7:13 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Every time I'm forced to use a goopy mess of a paper straw, my willingness to be subjected to the arrogant micromanagement of climate activists diminishes yet further. This initiative seems to be more of the same.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 30, 2022 at 8:59 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Further to my comments on period panties, I have been thinking about disposable diapers. Back when our children were born, there was ongoing debate about using a diaper service rather than disposables which were filling landfills with sewage. The diaper services advertised how well rinsed their cloth diapers were as well as touting that you back the same diaper each time rather than receiving a shared set of diapers. I remember discussions about how much water it took to make a disposable diaper compared to the amount of water each diaper needed to be thoroughly laundered between uses.

I wonder if those discussions are still part of parenting information.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 30, 2022 at 2:43 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

I'm glad you reported on people taking a more holistic view, like Oakland's Cam Anh. All too often we miss the forest for the trees, like the silly straw fetish, without considering the big picture of what we are trying to achieve.

It's not like we have any shortage of landfill space in the US, but rather that shipping trash, methane emitted from dumps, and trash pickup volume from e.g. Cam Anh have real costs. If it's cheaper to dump our plastics in US landfills than ship them across the oceans, that's fine with me, but if it's overall even cheaper to avoid generating trash in the first place that's even better.

The Starbucks reusable cup project sounds like it will be big enough to generate some real answers on the acceptance and costs of such a process.

Posted by Victor+Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on May 30, 2022 at 5:37 pm

Victor+Bishop is a registered user.

Palo Alto- leading the world in virtue signaling.
Their moto should be “Ask us , we know how to do things right and for a reasonable cost" (bike bridge over 101 for example)

Posted by Miriam Gordon, a resident of another community,
on May 31, 2022 at 4:11 pm

Miriam Gordon is a registered user.

This article mentions some great programs the City is partnering with to get food service businesses on board with reusables- including my organization's work with Tootsies. But several years ago, when the City adopted the foodware ordinance that forces businesses to use more expensive compostable foodware, that policy was supposed to be Step #1 in a 3 phase process. Next up was enacting policies that would require businesses to charge customers for disposable take-out cups and requiring that restaurants only use reusables when serving customers on the premises. What happened to that plan? There are already many California communities that require reuse for onsite dining and others that tell take-out businesses to charge customers for disposable cups while also allowing a customer to use their personal reusable cup to avoid the charge. Some of the cities that have adopted one or both of these policies include Arcata, Berkeley, Culver City, Los Angeles County, Fairfax, Pacifica, City and Co of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol. I hope Palo Alto doesn't just stop with making businesses buy more expensive disposable foodware - that only perpetuates a climate -harming throw away economy. Miriam Gordon, Upstream

Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 31, 2022 at 5:29 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

I truly love Sherry's posts here. Well written. Detailed. Clearly an expression of concern for the climate.

But I always end up asking myself do they really address what I believe to be an existential threat to the planet that the world is largely ignoring? I get that every step in the right direction is a step in the right direction, and should be an example to the world.

We won't be able to afford cutlery. You will be lucky to have food you can pick up with your fingers, or at least our offspring will.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 1, 2022 at 2:33 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Once again, an amazing variety of comments. We have the enthusiast Eddie, who is already BYO’ing and would like more people to do this small thing. The interested Mondoman, who understands the disparate costs of consumption and is intrigued by the Starbucks effort. The doomer-inclined Eeyore, who worries it’s all too little too late. The annoyed Joseph, who not only thinks this kind of effort is too little but is highly aggravated by some of the effects. And the broadly dismissive Victor, who denigrates it all as virtue signaling.

What’s interesting to me is, whether and how much progress we make on climate change depends on which of these views are reflected in which proportion among voters and consumers in the real (offline) world. I will write more about this next week.

@Miriam: Thanks for your work on this! You are right about the phasing, which you can find on page 184 of this report. Paula said that those efforts have been put on hold. At least one issue is that not all food service establishments have dishwashers, and the dishware services have been spotty. But that certainly doesn’t preclude, for example, charging customers for disposable items. It seems to have worked well for bags. When I asked Paula about these follow-up phases, which the city was very excited about two years ago, she said they are still worried about the timing and impact. She pointed to the reusable pilots -- moving forward with enthusiastic participants to prove out the model -- and also talked about the impacts of SB 1383, which I will write about later. The city agrees 100% that they want to move beyond single-use disposables, but they are trying to find the right timing and approach. Do you have a dashboard of when the cities adopted which policies? That would be interesting.

@Bystander: It is true that washing reusables is a cost and, as you say in your third post, that the cost needs to be compared with the cost of producing the disposable alternatives. An amazing stat I saw once is that it takes 8 gallons of water to make a single paper plate. I haven’t seen the analysis for period panties, but I think it’s terrific that women have reusable options like cups and panties and not just disposable tampons and pads. Periods can be a nuisance and they can be expensive, and these options help to address that, with an eye towards sustainability as well. IMO the suitability of these newer options is best assessed by the people who live with periods every month.

Posted by BobB, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Jun 2, 2022 at 12:24 pm

BobB is a registered user.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned incinerators. Apart from the problem with NIMBYs, they are a better solution than landfills for trash disposal.

I also want to point out that disposable trash really isn't a significant contributor to climate change. Misconceptions abound in this area.

Also, in many cases cures can be worse than the disease.

Web Link

It is easy to think that something that if something is inconvenient, it must be good, and conversely if something is convenient, it must be bad. In my opinion, this goes to the root of the problem of gathering support for effective environmental and climate measures. Convenient solutions are the best solutions. We should stop talking about plastic straws and instead talk about what is important and what works.

Posted by BobB, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Jun 2, 2022 at 12:30 pm

BobB is a registered user.

I really want to emphasize that if every individual eliminated all single use plastics in their personal lives, it would have very little impact on climate change.

Posted by TimR, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 2, 2022 at 6:50 pm

TimR is a registered user.

Well, while we're throwing ideas out there for better dealing with bodily functions, I think there should be discussion on bidets, both to alleviate the need for "single use" toilet paper, as well as bum health. It strikes me as a no-brainier, but like with gas stoves, there are cultural barriers I guess.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jun 2, 2022 at 9:08 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Please don't give them any ideas, TimR, or we will find toilet paper banned in Palo Alto.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 3, 2022 at 5:27 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@JosephED, that was hilarious, thanks :)

@BobB: You make good and important points. Poorly conceived and ineffective efforts/mandates/bans can do much more harm than good. I'll try to have more of a discussion about this and where to draw the line in my next post (not sure if that will be this Sunday or next).

Thanks for the great comments.

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