City moves to ban plastic foam | News | Palo Alto Online |


City moves to ban plastic foam

City Council unanimously supports new effort to prohibit packing peanuts, Styrofoam containers

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.

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36 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 10, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.


23 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2015 at 2:54 pm

I wish the City would stop banning things and start being more productive.

I would like to see progress made on undergrounding the powerlines. I would like to see a system of less than 6 trips by garbage trucks on my street on garbage day as each truck comes one side then later the other side to pick up one colored can. I would like to see less junk mail from the city. I would like to see better internet options. I would like to see more synchronized traffic lights. I would like to see better all day parking options. I would like to see better public transportation options.

I rarely if ever see Styrofoam anywhere now. Is it still really a problem?

22 people like this
Posted by Paperless
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2015 at 4:16 pm

How about PA banning unrequested delivery of newspapers as a nuisance?

Each week, papers such as this one (PA Weekly, PA Daily News, etc.), have low paid workers in a passing vehicle throw papers in the direction of front doors, whether the resident wants the paper or not. Moreover, each paper is often in a plastic bag.

Everyone I know just throws these papers out, unread.

The papers could help "save the planet" and the locality by instead delivering only to addresses of residents who take a free or paid subscription. But no...that would reveal to advertisers how many people actually look at ads, in contrast to the papers' claimed circulation.

9 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 10, 2015 at 4:22 pm

"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"

Well, what are we supposed to do with the other 20 Chamberfuls?

17 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 10, 2015 at 7:48 pm

Does this mean that Fry's will stop selling televisions, computers, and other items packed in expanded polystyrene foam?

3 people like this
Posted by Patrick Muffler
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 9:33 am

What percentage of styrofoam waste comes from local businesses, and what percentage from on-line retailers?

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 11, 2015 at 10:25 am

One other thing. Most bike helmets have Styrofoam. I expect the City not to ban these!

7 people like this
Posted by Kevin Ohlson
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 11, 2015 at 3:14 pm

With 114 tons of foam going through the city and into landfill, surely public works has an idea of the top three sources, right? In the City's drive to zero waste, is this 114 tons where efforts should be focused? Is styrofoam the worst offender?

5 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Mr Ohlson raises an interesting line of discussion. How much does it cost the City to collect and dispose of this material? How much will it cost to eliminate it from the waste stream, and to enforce these rules? Also, users of expanded polystyrene probably chose it because it was the best material for the application - how much worse off will we all be due to this rule? How many TVs will arrive cracked, for example?

My guess is that it will cost money, waste our time, and reduce our quality of life - but expand the City's intrusion into the affairs of residents and others.

Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Nov 12, 2015 at 9:15 am

PAmoderate is a registered user.

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

9 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:27 am

Chip is a registered user.

PA should have more important issues than looking for more things to ban. Maybe there are too many City employees?

We know styrofoam debris harms the environment so we limit uses to those necessary. This includes restaurant take-out orders. Not all styrofoam originates locally. I've seen City street crews utility employees besides construction workers & gardeners who live elsewhere with styrofoam debris in their truck cabs. Igloo coolers break & are discarded at every Stanford tailgate & construction site.

Consumers can notify e-tail merchants that they don't want pellets used in shipments when an alternative such as air-filled plastic pillows are equally protective, but all UPS mailing centers accept pellets for reuse. Big box electronics will still come with styrofoam packing.

Give it a rest, Palo Alto.

5 people like this
Posted by Think Clearly
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:35 am

1. Yes, Styrofoam/ polystyrene IS one of the worst pollution offenders: Styrofoam/polystyrene -- Breaks down into tiny little round piece called "nurdles" -- If they get into the creeks, bay, or ocean -- by blowing away from the landfill -- which often happens -- they are very lethal to marine life.
2. The state just banned microbeads in cosmetics and other cleaning products. Nurdles are just as dangerous.
3. Is Styrofoam/polystyrene a Petroleum Product? If so, does part of the foreign oil purchased by US companies get used for this?
4. Styrofoam/polystrene clamshell and other take out containers -- have been replaced by compostable ones in many other cities. Why not Palo Alto?
5. Agreed: Amazon, computer companies and others that use Styrofoam/polysterene blocks to ship products should find other non - polluting recyclable or compostable materials for shipment.
6. Styrofoam/polystyrene "peanuts" have been replaced by many shippers with cornstarch or other shipping materials- insist on these when you purchase anything online....If you are an online shopper.

10 people like this
Posted by Tina
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:59 am

Green Citizen recycles styrofoam Web Link. They are awesome :-)

6 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 5:08 pm

I just received a gift from my son of a photo mug from Shutterfly, packed in a styrofoam container. I had tossed the container into the bag destined for the landfill but will retrieve it and drop it off at GreenCitizen which happens to be convenient for me. But whom would Palo Alto fine for using styrofoam? Shutterfly? Me? My son in New York? Just how would that work?

BTW, "Think Clearly"'s comments are completely incomprehensible to me. What's wrong with foreign oil? How is it different from, say, foreign coffee or foreign bananas or foreign televisions or for that matter foreign iPads? We are all enriched by trade, whether with someone in Palo Alto or Ouagadougou. People engage in voluntary trade because all parties are better off.

The problem with styrofoam and microbeads and nurdles is illegal disposal into waterways or storm drains or sanitary sewers, not landfill disposal. The solution to that is education and, where appropriate, law enforcement. It may make sense to charge manufacturers for external costs, but that will probably not amount to much.

And what's the profile of generators of styrofoam waste? Do a few manufacturers or service businesses account for large quantities? Is this a household waste issue?

9 people like this
Posted by Medical Necessity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2015 at 8:15 pm

On a monthly basis, I receive medication, via overnight air mail, for rheumatoid arthritis that is VERY perishable. It comes wrapped in layers and layers of bubble wrap, surrounded by ice packs and insulated with styrofoam. It often sits on my porch for 3-4 hours before I get home.

I have asked the mail order pharmacy ( which my insurance company insists I must order it from) to please not use styrofoam because it is not recyclable. They in turn insist that no recyclable substitute had been found that is anywhere near satisfactory.

All I can do is take it to GreenCitizen....I cannot stop CVS Caremark from using the stuff.

4 people like this
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:34 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I was in attendance at the Council meeting for this item and you can watch it too, it's item 8 at Web Link

It was clear staff had discussed the proposed ordinance with the likely-to-be-affected business community and considered whether the products they sought to ban have viable alternatives, and adjusted the regulations where needed. For instance, the grocers asserted there are not good alternatives to the styrofoam meat trays, so these are excluded from the ban, while egg cartons are included because there are plenty of alternatives like pressed paperboard. Similarly staff had priced out alternatives to styrofoam cups and found that for a pack of 1000 the price difference was 50 cents.

The city can't really do much about packaging from externally sourced materials, however the ordinance will direct that a local re-distributer of products can't add additional styrofoam. For instance some computer hardware reseller may receive from China a monitor encased in styrofoam, and if they add to the package some other component, they can leave the original styrofoam there but they can't put more styrofoam in the package.

For this larger issue, staff has met with companies such as HP to encourage them to remove polystyrene from their supply chain and have had some success. However the city recently purchased a bunch of new monitors, and they all came encased in styrofoam, which is pretty much not recyclable (very few places will take it, most goes to landfill). They plan to show the HP executives a big dumpster of styrofoam just from their monitors, to push the message that HP needs to adjust its global supply chain if it is to be a responsible steward of our environment.

5 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:48 am

>and they all came encased in styrofoam, which is pretty much not recyclable (very few places will take it, most goes to landfill).

@ Cedric: A rational disposal system would involve thermal destruction methods, like plasma arc. Styrofoam would then produce electricity and not be sent to landfills. In fact all of our disposables could be handled in a similar manner. Add in human sewage sludge and used tires.

Like this comment
Posted by Janine Rands
a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2015 at 6:36 pm

I am so happy to learn that Palo Alto has taken this step to rid your community of this Foam litter. To all the naysayers - where do you propose an expanded landfill to let it lay for the next million years - as it doesn't decompose? Do you not care that if you eat hot soup, any oily, tomato-acid foods, or drink hot coffee or tea from a 'foam' cup that you get "Styrene" chemicals that leach into your food, which are linked directly to cancer? Do you not care that birds see that white spot on the ground and fly down to pick it up - and it gets caught in their throat? Birds can't digest foam, so eventually it fills their stomach and kills them. Do you not care that Foam becomes airborne, floats and is a sick source of litter that is more than difficult to pick up? How about you join the next litter pickup campaign in your city. Solution? BAN IT - nobody can sell it, so nobody can buy it.

3 people like this
Posted by Pat
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 20, 2016 at 10:02 am

The US is dying from a million cuts. Part of the reason the USA is a nanny police state now is that whenever there is a problem, the kneejerk reaction in the US is to call for a new law.

Nanny state laws are not the best solution, however. Nanny state laws lead to more laws, higher fines, and tougher sentences. Thirty years ago, DWI laws were enacted that led to DWI checkpoints and lower DWI levels. Seatbelt laws led to backseat seatbelt laws, childseat laws, and pet seatbelt laws. Car liability insurance laws led to health insurance laws and gun liability laws. Smoking laws that banned smoking in buildings led to laws against smoking in parks and then bans against smoking in entire cities. Sex offender registration laws led to sex offender restriction laws and violent offender registration laws.

Nanny state laws don’t make us safer, either. Nanny state laws lead people to be careless since they don’t need to have personal responsibility anymore. People don’t need to be careful crossing the street now because drunk-driving has been outlawed and driving while using a cellphone is illegal. People don’t investigate companies or carry out due diligence because businesses must have business licenses now.

The main point of nanny state laws is not safety. The main purpose of more laws is revenue generation for the state.

Many laws are contradictory, too. Some laws say watering lawns is required, while other laws say watering lawns is illegal.

Many nanny state laws that aim to solve a problem can be fixed by using existing laws. If assault is already illegal, why do we need a new law that outlaws hitting umpires?

Nanny state laws are not even necessary. If everything was legal would you steal, murder, and use crack cocaine? Aren’t there other ways to solve problems besides calling the police? Couldn’t people talk to people who bother them? Couldn’t people be sued for annoying behavior? Couldn't people just move away? Even if assault was legal, wouldn’t attackers risk being killed or injured, too? Having no laws doesn’t mean actions have no consequences.

If there is no victim, there is no crime.

We don’t need thousands of laws when we only need 10.

Freedom is not just a one way street. You can only have freedom for yourself if you allow others to have it.

Think. Question everything.

2 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 20, 2016 at 12:52 pm


I agree. Filling the City Council chambers with plastic foam once is enough.

1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 20, 2016 at 6:11 pm

The brainiacs infesting Palo Alto's downtown office park can figure out how to survey monkeys, but not how to recycle simple 1950s-era styrofoam at a profit? What's wrong with our apparently overhyped techies?

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2016 at 6:59 pm

About eight years ago Zero Waste along with Acterra started a campaign on how polystyrene was being dumped in our landfills.Zero Waste along with Acterra staged photos of piles of polystyrene being dumped in the Palo Alto landfill.This was never the case.

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