Plastic Reduction Ordinances

Palo Alto Disposable Checkout Bag Ordinance

Sand Hill Road 2012 Photo credit: Phil Bobel


Plastics account for 60% of the litter found in local creeks. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography reports that plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean grew a hundredfold over the past four decades. Local cities are required by the Stormwater Municipal Regional Permit to reduce trash found along creeks and San Francisco shore by 100% by 2022. Despite extensive outreach and Palo Alto’s 2009 Bag Ordinance (which applied only to large grocery stores), plastic bag pollution persists locally. Approximately 350 plastic bags were found in Palo Alto’s lower watershed in 2012 from two creek clean up events and a one-month bag sighting tally.

In May 2013, these issues prompted Palo Alto City Council to expand its 2009 Bag Ordinance to include all Retail and Food Service Establishments. The Ordinance also added additional requirements for the types of bags used at Retail. The Ordinance will reduce 20 million single-use plastic and paper bags after the first year of implementation (Palo Alto Disposable Checkout Bag Ordinance Environmental Impact Report, January 2013).

What are the main requirements of Palo Alto’s bag ordinance?
Starting July 1, 2013 Retail Establishments may no longer distribute single-use plastic checkout bags and must charge a minimum of ten cents for paper or reusable bags. The store charge must be shown on customer receipts and reusable and paper bags must meet certain specifications. Records on bag sales must be kept and provided to the City upon request.

Read the complete Ordinance

Requirements for Food Service Establishments Start November 1, 2013,
Starting November 1, Food Service Establishments such as restaurants, delicatessens, convenience stores selling prepared food, and food trucks cannot distribute single-use plastic checkout bags for food items. Customers can opt for no bag, paper bags may be provided to customers at no charge and reusable bags may be used at the discretion of customers and restaurants. Individual paper or plastic product bags without handles may be used around containers of soups or stews to prevent spilling.

Food Service Establishments located within a retail establishment
(e.g., a café within a department store, or a delicatessen within a grocery store must follow ordinance requirements for food service establishments when registers are designated only for the sale of prepared food (as a stand-alone restaurant would). If customers purchase retail items along with prepared food the entire purchase is subject to the ordinance requirements for Retailers including a minimum ten cent charge for paper or reusable bags. Please call Watershed Protection staff for guidance on unique situations.

Information for Residents
Resident / customer factsheet
Bags found in lower Palo Alto watershed

Resources For Retail and Food Service Establishments
Retail FAQ
Retail Bag reporting form
Retail and food service suppliers list for recycled paper checkout bags 
Standard size reusable bags that meet ordinance requirements(15 liter capacity and greater–links to Los Angeles County website).

To receive copies of these items by mail contact Public Works - Watershed Protection at 

Paper and Reusable Bags as defined by the ordinance must be labeled with the manufacturer, the material from which it is manufactured, the percentage of post-consumer recycled content, and a statement that the bag does not contain heavy metals. Refer to the Ordinance or contact Public Works - Watershed Protection for alternative options.


  • Ordinance
  • City Manager Report (5278), March 2, 2015
  • Store Exit Bag Survey Summary 2008-2014
  • Large Retailer Bag Survey Results 2014
  • Final Environmental Impact Report  
  •  Notice of Determination
  • City Manager Report (3065) March 11, 2013
  • City Council Presentation March 11, 2013
  • City Manager Report (3066) April 15, 2013
  • City Manager Report (2888) June 18, 2012

    More Information:
    Californians Against Waste
    Save the Bay
    Disposable Foodware Items Reduction Ordinance (January 1, 2020)

    For more information or to order materials call the City of Palo Alto Public Works Department – Watershed Protection at 650.329.2122 or email