Last year, Palo Altans threw away about 114 tons of plastic foam -- enough packing peanuts, foamy egg cartons, ice chests, clamshell containers and Styrofoam cups, bowls and plates to fill up the entire Council Chambers 21 times, according to Public Works staff.
On Monday, the City Council made a move to lighten the load of Styrofoam showing up in the city waste stream by supporting a new law that would prohibit local stores from selling or distributing the light and crumbly material.
After a brief discussion and a unanimous vote, the council approved a staff recommendation to expand the city's existing Styrofoam ban, which applies to food establishments, to other retailers. This includes hardware stores, pharmacies, grocery stores and delivery companies.
The council's decision to ban Styrofoam containers is just the latest move in its multi-year effort to discourage plastic. In recent years, the city passed laws banning plastic bags from local grocery stores and restaurants and to prohibit Styrofoam in food-service establishments.
In making a case for the latest ban, Public Works staff cited the high volume of plastic waste that gets recovered every year from local creeks and the lack of viable options for recycling or reusing the Styrofoam. And even if there was a market for recycled Styrofoam, it would not solve the litter problem, said Julie Weiss, environmental specialist at the Public Works Department.
To demonstrate the extent of the problem, Weiss brought a plastic bag filled with plastic packing peanuts. Last year, Palo Altans used enough plastic foam to fill 556,098 bags like the one she was holding, she said.
According to a report from Public Works, plastic foam is "consistently one of the top three forms of litter found in creek litter booms." It makes up 6 percent of the litter (by volume) found in local stormwater trash-capture devises.
The proposal to ban plastic foam faced little opposition, with only one speaker expressing concern. Jessica Lynam, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Association, said polystyrene is the most effective material for keeping food hot or cold and encouraged the city to give local establishments more time to get rid of existing stock before instituting the new law. Under the proposed timeline, the new ban would take effect on March 1.
"What the city needs to do is it needs to look at other activities to get rid of litter, such as create ways to do prevention and cleanup," Lynam said.
But these concerns notwithstanding, council members noted that they have not received a single email or call from local businesses protesting the new restriction.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of the Public Works Department, said he was surprised by Lynam's comments, given the feedback staff has been getting from local stores.
"We did reach out to businesses and didn't find businesses that were disturbed by our March 1 phase period," Bobel said.
He also noted that for businesses like motels, which may have a large stock of Styrofoam cups, the city could offer a longer phase-in period before enforcement would kick in. In fact, the ordinance gives the Public Works director the discretion to exempt businesses from the ban for up to a year if they can demonstrate that the prohibition would cause an "undue hardship" and that there are no reasonable alternatives to plastic foam.
The council didn't formally vote on the ordinance because of a technicality: the description of the item on the council's agenda wasn't specific enough. But by voting unanimously to "support" (rather than "adopt") the law, the council authorized staff to bring the item back at a future meeting, where it will be approved without discussion as part of the council's consent calendar.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who made the motion to support the new ban, was one of several council members to praise staff for its work on the ordinance.
"I think it's high time we did this and I'm really pleased we're moving forward on this," he said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach concurred. The ban, he said, already applies to restaurants and implementing it at other businesses makes sense.
"I'm glad we're continuing to push this issue," Wolbach said.