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By Sherry Listgarten

Palo Alto's plastics ban: Sensible policy or vain distraction?

Uploaded: Jun 30, 2019

When I heard a few weeks ago that Palo Alto was considering a city-wide ban on plastic straws, utensils, and produce bags, my first thought was “Sheesh, can’t we spend our limited attention on things that make a meaningful difference?” When it passed unanimously on June 10, my second thought was pretty much the same thing. Is the ban going to do anything more than just annoy people?

Since then, I’ve thought about that stance a lot, since it seems pretty stingy and unfair. There is certainly a lot to dislike about plastic and a lot to like about immediate, local action. So I figured I’d lay out my thinking to see if that changed my mind, and get your take at the same time.

The ban I’m talking about is the “Disposable Foodware Ordinance”, scheduled to roll out in Palo Alto in 2020. It is positioned as the first of three phases. In the first (2020) phase, plastic straws, stirrers, utensils, and other small food and drink accessories are banned, as well as meat and produce bags in stores and farmers markets. In 2021, all disposable foodware is banned except for takeout, which must be compostable and charged to the consumer. In 2025, even takeout foodware must be reusable. You can read more in the City’s staff report. The chart below is on page 184.

This post is about the first phase, which is the only one that has been approved to date. There are many things I like about it.

- I like that kids (girl scouts and Gunn students) were directly involved in making it happen. Theirs will be the first generation to bear the real brunt of climate change. This teaches them that caring and acting make a difference.

- Eliminating even small plastics and bags helps to reduce litter and improve our waste management.

- Plastics are a problem for our oceans and marine life. This helps reduce their visibility locally and get people accustomed to alternatives.

- It’s relatively inexpensive to carry out and can be done locally.

So what’s not to like? I’ll try an analogy first, though I’m not sure it’s fair. Suppose you have a very, very sick child. She has been sick for years, and her illness is rapidly deteriorating. You are in the hospital to find out what more can be done. While there, her uncle notices a rash on her arm. He asks about it, and the hospital says yes, they can treat it. You are directed over to dermatology where the staff is able to address the rash, and you are given some ointment and asked to come back the next day. Was this a useful detour or a distraction?

Along those lines, my concerns with the plastic ban include:

- This type of litter strikes me as more superficial than climate change. Litter is easily visible, and plastics are killing some marine life. But climate change is not only warming and acidifying oceans, killing reefs, displacing fish populations, and endangering the phytoplankton at the base of the marine food pyramid. It is wreaking havoc on land and in air as well. The City (to its credit) looked at the emissions impact of eliminating plastic straws, utensils, and food bags, and found it to be minimal (from page 6 of the staff report).

- Even small things create work for our city council and staff. The staff report alone on this is 192 pages. (To be fair, it covers all three phases of the plastics ban, as well as a proposal to improve recovery of materials from demolition.)

- Even small things create work for businesses and residents. Should we pick our battles with fewer, bigger-impact initiatives?

- Foregoing plastic straws and bags may give false comfort to people, who might then delay taking other, more impactful actions.

A friend of mine rolled is eyes and asked “Why is it that you think we can’t do multiple things at once?” And in response to similar criticism about Canada’s plastics ban, some scientists wrote: “It is important to keep global planetary threats in perspective. However, it is counterproductive to pit one issue against another.”

But aren’t they both competing for our attention and resources?

If you didn’t like the “rash” analogy, I’ll try another one. Recently the NY Times had an article about financial advice. The author is frustrated with financial professionals that chastise the younger generation for spending on non-essential items like coffee and gym memberships. He says: “So I feel like ... a lot of personal finance advice is centered around tiny expenses, like coffee, snacks, occasional lunches or other small indulgences. I hate it! … So I’ll start with the question we’re all wondering: Will skipping coffee make me a millionaire?” He interviews a financial professional, who says that worrying about larger expenses like housing, child care, and transportation makes a much bigger difference. But she acknowledges that small expenses like coffee can seem easier to control.

I would hate to think that with this small-plastics ban, we are going for the ineffective thing that is easier to control, rather than focusing on the bigger, more impactful items. That seems like a bad idea.


I’m not sure any more. For one, while people who are annoyed by the plastics ban may resist any additional emissions savings, many more may be fine with it. They might quickly get used to it, feel some happiness with their small contribution, and then look for more they can do. Just as foregoing a daily coffee can remind you to save and make you more careful about your larger expenses, a small daily “green” change can alter your perspective and encourage you to make bigger changes.

More to the point, though, I’m having trouble thinking of better ideas. What can businesses do at little cost to help us all reduce our emissions? The ideas I come up with are either too expensive (e.g., installing chargers or heat pumps), narrowly scoped (e.g., installing bike racks), or infeasible (e.g., reducing sales of beef and lamb). So net-net, I think this straws/utensils/bags ban is worth a try. But interested in your thoughts….

Current Climate Data (May 2019)

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Notes and References

1. The EU has also banned single-use plastics, starting in 2021.

2. Cities around here that have taken action include San Francisco and Berkeley. This chart is from page 7 of the staff report. The produce/meat bags is new for Palo Alto. I was surprised to read in the report that while staff estimates compostable foodware costs between $0.01 to $0.02 more per item on average, they estimate compostable produce bags will cost between $0.09 to $0.15 per bag more. Yikes!

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