News Details

Polystyrene Restriction Ordinance (Proposed and Current)

The City of Palo Alto is holding a public stakeholder meeting to discuss the proposed expansion of Palo Alto’s existing ordinance 5.30 (“Expanded Polystyrene and Non-Recyclable Food Service Containers) Title 5 (“Health and Sanitation”) of the Palo Alto Municipal Code. The current ordinance prohibits the use of expanded plastic foam (e.g., Styrofoam™) and other non-recyclable plastics for use as foodware at food service establishments. The proposed revisions would prohibit retail sales of expanded plastic foam such as cups, bowls, plates, trays, clamshell containers, ice chests, shipping boxes and packing materials. The revised ordinance would go into effect in late fall 2015. Retailers would include grocery stores, pharmacies, mailing services and hardware stores or as otherwise defined by the ordinance. The ordinance would also apply to businesses that are primarily service-oriented that might distribute plastic foam products such as foam cups used for complimentary tea or coffee.

Other cities throughout California have adopted similar ordinances including the cities of Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, the City and County of Santa Cruz. More than 90 cities and counties throughout California have adopted ordinances restricting polystyrene in some capacity either at restaurants or to also include retail.

The public meeting to discuss the proposed ordinance changes was held on Thursday June 11, 2015 from 10:00 - 11:00am at Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA  94303.

Public comments may also be submitted by email to, or by calling the project manager: Julie Weiss, City of Palo Alto Environmental Specialist, 650.329.2117.

Why was the Ordinance Needed:

Expanded polystyrene foam presents unique management issues because it is lightweight, floats, resists biodegradation, and easily breaks into smaller pieces.  These small pieces can be ingested by marine wildlife, leading to reduced appetite and nutrient absorption and possible death by starvation.  According to a United Nations Environment Global Program of Action study, at least 162 marine species including most seabirds are reported to have eaten plastics and other litter.

The Ordinance expansion is one of many actions that have been implemented by City of Palo Alto Public Works Department–Watershed Protection to meet Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit requirements. This permit requires the City of Palo Alto and other public agencies to reduce trash loads from separate storm sewer systems to no adverse impact by 2022.   Plastic foam continues to be one of the largest components of trash found in creeks and storm drain inserts. Plastic foam has been well documented as a hazard to water quality and wildlife.

Polystyrene Restriction Ordinance History

On May 11, 2009, Palo Alto's City Council adopted the first phase of its ordinance to restrict food vendors from providing prepared food in disposable food service containers made from expanded polystyrene or non-recyclable plastic.  The ordinance went into effect Earth Day 2010 (April 22, 2010).

The definition of Food Vendor contained in the Ordinance is broader than traditional food service establishments and includes retail food vendors, cafeterias, sidewalk and other outdoor food vendors, food vehicles, and caterers.  Foods that are prepared or packaged outside of the City of Palo Alto are exempted.  The food service container restriction is limited to containers used for prepared and ready-to-consume food, and does not apply to single-use disposable straws, utensils, or hot cup lids.  The Ordinance also prohibits the use of expanded polystyrene or non-recyclable plastic food service containers at City facilities, City managed concessions, City sponsored events, and City permitted events.  Food vendors are required to comply within one year of the effective date of the Ordinance; but the City may grant exceptions on a case by case basis exempting a vendor from compliance up to one year based on undue hardship in certain specific situations.

Ordinance and Environmental Documents:

Signed ordinance to restrict disposable food service containers made out of expanded polystyrene and non-recyclable plastic
Negative Declaration for Draft Expanded Polystyrene Ordinance

City Manager Reports:
CMR 201:01 dated April 27, 2009
CMR 206:10 dated April 19, 2010

Additional Information:
Food Service Establishment Factsheet on 2009 Expanded Polystyrene Ordinance Requirements

Last Updated May 22, 2015