On May 11, 2009, Palo Alto's City Council adopted an 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 ordinance is primarily intended to reduce the negative environmental impacts of expanded polystyrene food service containers, which become a very persistent and mobile source of litter to local creeks and marine ecosystems when improperly disposed.
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.
Although expanded polystyrene is considered an inexpensive and effective product, it has many drawbacks and hidden costs which are deferred to the public and the environment. Food service polystyrene is a one-time use product that degrades extremely slowly in nature. Expanded polystyrene litter is not easily contained and is often conveyed to local creeks, the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Polystyrene waste constitutes 15% of the litter collected in storm drains, and is the second most abundant type of marine debris according to a 2004 CIWMB study.
The primary goal of the Ordinance is to restrict the use of expanded polystyrene disposable food service containers by food vendors, creating a shift to multiple-use containers where possible. Where multiple-use containers are not viable, the desired shift is to recyclable plastic or fiber (paper) containers.
What, exactly, does the Ordinance do:
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.