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City of Palo Alto prepares for bans on disposable plastic, bags for meat and produce

The environmentally-friendly policy will supplement incoming plastic bans in Palo Alto, with plastic meat and produce bags also set to be banned in July 2020, and other plastic foodware to be banned in January of that year. (Photo courtesy of Nader Moussa)

Almost a year after the Zero Waste Plan was proposed to the Palo Alto City Council, the city issued a strict ban on plastic utensils, stirrers, straws, etc. in full-service establishments on June 10. Though other cities in the Bay Area have already shouldered this ban, Palo Alto has become the first of these cities to also issue a ban on plastic meat and produce bags that customers usually receive at grocery stores and farmers markets. The latter ban is to be implemented in July 2020. 

According to City Council member Greg Tanaka, the proposal for the ban was precipitated when a local Girl Scouts troop spoke at a City Council meeting about the possibility of banning plastic straws because they are difficult to recycle. The proposed ban received zero pushback from the council, which unanimously voted in favor of it.  

“I think we’re really just trying to cut down the amount of plastic waste that we have,” Tanaka said. “You see pictures of whales being opened up and there are 50 pounds of plastic in their bellies. It’s really around that — trying to stop the pollution of our oceans.” 

As stated in the City Council staff report, the disposable food-ware ordinance includes two additional phases to be implemented by 2021 and 2025 respectively, as well as a deconstruction ordinance, all of which further Palo Alto’s shift toward reusability. 

The second phase requires that restaurants provide reusable dishes for dine-in customers and charge for disposable containers and cups, while the third phase eliminates disposable containers completely, demanding the use of reusable to-go order containers. 

The deconstruction ordinance, on the other hand, focuses on deconstructing buildings piece-by-piece, increasing reusability that would be lost through simple demolition. The deconstruction process, though, adds tremendous cost to the demolition of a house or other structure, Tanaka said.

“After the meeting, I talked to some members of the business community and there were already some concerns there,” Tanaka said. “One of the concerns that came up was about whether or not people will even reuse used lumber. How practical is that?”

Because of the pushback that Tanaka has seen against the deconstruction ordinance, he anticipated resistance from food establishments on the disposable food-ware ordinance. However, several restaurants in Palo Alto already seem to be compliant with these regulations and do not feel these changes will impact their establishments drastically. 

According to Daniel Salk, general manager of Bon Appetit Management Company, the plastic ban will likely not affect food production at all. The ordinance mandates an implementation of compostable or reusable utensil alternatives at restaurants, both of which are standard at Arbuckle Café, a Bon Appetit eatery at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. For many years now, all disposable items — such as cups, containers, bowls, utensils, napkins, straws and stirrers — have been compostable at Arbuckle.  There is also traditional tableware, flatware and glassware for guests who dine in.

“I think it’s great that Palo Alto is taking a lead in sustainability,” Salk said. “I hope they consistently continue with their efforts.”

This is what Tanaka and the rest of the Palo Alto City Council hope to do, he said. With the plastic and deconstruction ordinances already on their way, they plan to keep looking for ways to fight plastic’s infiltration of the earth’s streets and oceans.

“[We’re] working on doing a more comprehensive ban. For instance, looking at banning plastic newspaper bags,” Tanaka said. “We are just trying to do everything we can to cut down disposable plastic in the environment. ”

Contact Ishani Singh at ishanisingh31 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Ishani Singh

Ishani Singh

Ishani was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.