News Release News Release The City of Palo Alto
Communications Department
250 Hamilton Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94301


PRESS RELEASE 04/21/2010
Subject :

Palo Alto’s Restriction on Expanded Polystyrene Food Containers Begins on Earth Day, April 22
New ordinance requires vendors to use compostable or recyclable takeout containers to protect the environment
Contact : Phil Bobel, Environmental Compliance Manager    650-329-2598
Palo Alto, CA - Palo Alto's ordinance to restrict food vendors from providing prepared food in disposable food service containers made from expanded polystyrene (foam) or non-recyclable plastic goes into effect on Earth Day, April 22, 2010.  

The ordinance will impact the estimated 30% of the city's food vendors who still use expanded polystyrene by requiring them to switch to compostable and recyclable earth-friendly alternatives.

"The primary reason for the restriction is to reduce the negative environmental impacts these foam food service containers have on local creeks and our marine ecosystems," says Phil Bobel, Environmental Compliance Manager for the City of Palo Alto. “Along with our plastic bag ordinance that went into effect last September, the new restriction helps the City do its part to address a worldwide plastic pollution problem that is degrading water quality and killing wildlife.”  

Palo Alto’s new restriction is broad-reaching and goes beyond traditional food service establishments to include retail food vendors, cafeterias, sidewalk and other outdoor food vendors, food vehicles, and caterers. In addition, the City adopted a policy which also restricts distribution of expanded polystyrene at City events.

“A variety of alternatives to expanded polystyrene containers are readily available,” said Bobel, “and we are pleased that a majority of the City’s food vendors have already made the switch to containers made from paper, cardboard, aluminum, or biodegradable and recyclable plastics.” 

Expanded polystyrene foam is a one-time use product that degrades extremely slowly in nature. Because it is lightweight, floats, and easily breaks into smaller pieces, it can be ingested by marine wildlife, leading to 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.

Locally, the problem of trash in our watershed has been underscored by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board who voted unanimously in February of 2009 to designate the edges of the central and south Bay along with 24 rivers and creeks, as places in need of trash controls. 

The penalty for non-compliance is a $500 fine, however the City sees this as a last resort and plans to work closely with stores to educate them about recyclable or compostable alternatives. Food vendors were given one year to comply with the ordinance. Enforcement is by the City of Palo Alto (not the County Health Inspector) and the City will monitor compliance in part by responding to customer complaints.

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For background on the environmental impact and public cost of polystyrene: