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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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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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Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jun 30, 2019 at 7:28 am

When I was growing up we used very little plastic, it was a sensible thing when things like glass shampoo bottles changed to plastic and metal dishwasher liquid changed from metal containers that went rusty by the sink to plastic, but I also remember my grandmothers both using bar soap to wash dishes.

I remember my mother buying produce and having it weighed by the grocer before tipping it into her string bag, all the produce was loose and tipped together into the same string bag.

I remember my mother buying meat from a butcher who wrapped it in parchment paper and then two layers of butchers paper before giving it to her.

I remember sandwich meats and similar being wrapped in parchment paper and then brown paper and tied up with string into little parcels, and then collecting and paying for all the little parcels at the cashier before we left the shop.

I remember our milk being delivered to the house in an electric vehicle into a little basket with a dial of how many pints we wanted delivered. The empty bottles were rinsed and taken away to re-use.

I remember sliced bread coming wrapped in wax paper wrappers which were used afterwards to wrap our sandwiches when we took a packed lunch with us.

I remember our bottles of soda pop coming in glass bottles and we had to return them to the shop to get our money back.

I remember our fish and chips coming wrapped in old newspaper.

BTW, I am not that old.

Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Jun 30, 2019 at 7:44 am

Memories flooding in now.

I remember taking vacuum flasks of tea/coffee with us when we went out on a day trip. I remember buying a tray of tea and sandwiches at the beach, paying a deposit for the cups and saucers, plates and tray, and getting the deposit back when we returned them to the cafe.

The oldest form of packed lunches that we had were pasties, pastry wrapped around leftovers, and didn't need to be wrapped in anything more than a linen napkin to take with us. Delicious.

I remember getting my cousin's cast offs, wearing them, passing them to my sister and then she passed them on to other cousins. I remember my mother making all my clothes, some out of the skirts of dresses she no longer wore.

I remember schools having a uniform swop shop so that various items that were outgrown could be swopped for bigger items. I remember using every page in my exercise books at school and not being able to get a new one until the old one was completely full. We used some of our exercise books for the same subject for several years before they became full.

I remember things like hoovers, toasters, hairdryers, being repaired when they broke rather than new ones being bought.

I remember my mother doing several loads of laundry in the same water in her twin tub. I remember my sister and I sharing a bath when we were young and taking it in turns to get into the same water when we were too big to share the bath. I remember wearing clothes for several days before we were told that they needed to be changed into clean clothes so that dirty ones could be washed. Not all clothes of course, but unless they had visible dirt or were smelly, they were considered not dirty.

I remember my mother darning socks, mending tears, turning collars on my Dad's shirt - in fact he bought shirts which came with a spare collar for when the first was frayed.

We were not poor, just that's what everyone did.

So tell me, when did this throwaway lifestyle start, because it is a bit newfangled to me.

Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 30, 2019 at 9:52 am

Great post again Sherry!

It's important to look at how we can do the things the IPCC (group of conservative scientists in a lowest common denominator lagging advice structure) told us in the eye opening 2018 report. to paraphrase about climate action.. We have about 11 years to do everything we can to change.. 1) Rapidly 2) in ways that are Far Reaching, and in ways that are 3) Unprecedented. in other words, if we as policy makers, advisors, advocates, sharers are doing things that are comfortable, we are losing while eating up the remaining game time.

That being said I have one instinct to pursue invisible GHGs doggedly to the exclusion of all "distractions".

But on the other hand, I find it useful to ask environmentally aware folks one by one... "What got you started taking action to improve the environment?" And listen to those stories of transformation when they converted from passivity to activity and caring. I see a theme of something happening where they were able to see they had crossed some (perhaps small like plastic foodware) threshold and now see themselves on the green side of that little threshold, and start to self-identify as part of the solution. They become advocates and they get satisfaction from making progress and they look for more ways to help more problems. e.g. I met a successful consulting executive at an event recently and asked what got her interested in climate preservation and she said it was the can do feeling she got after buying an EV for other personal classic reasons (image, performance, reliability lower cost of ownership, etc). The shiny purchase was the threshold she crossed. On her own, she found she liked how it felt to be part of the solution and wanted to do more to get more of that good active progress feeling. She was looking to dig deeper and mine personal satisfaction from working on global problems. So our local challenge could be, how might we make rollout of plastics policies or other small steps become thresholds that participants notice themselves crossing and that they become interested in mining good feelings of taking additional steps for entire ecosystem function preservation?

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 1, 2019 at 10:05 am

I'm curious about "compostable".

I read somewhere, but do not know if that was true, that compostable
items are only compostable under certain conditions, one of them being
that the item is not underground in a landfill, and that in any case the
composting process is very slow. The gist was that there is little
benefit to compostable items, and they cost more.

I suppose if a compostable fork is in a landfill like a plastic fork it does
not matter much, but if it is outside in the environment somewhere
and can biodegrade that makes a certain amount of sense.

What is the story on compostable items? Does the city acknowledge
that is understands what compostable means, and what does it really
mean, and what do they expect the life of these compostable items to be?

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 1, 2019 at 11:20 am

This is at least a start. Next our city ought to deal with a major plastic pollution problem of its own making--excessive street painting. Those paints are plastics. They are ground to dust by traffic, and the dust is flushed into the bay via the storm drains.

Plastic microparticles are a recently identified toxic pollution in oceans and waterways, a menace to marine life of all kinds. Gaudy street markings are a civic pride, but they are killing the bay.

Posted by LM, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jul 1, 2019 at 12:06 pm

We're all very dependent on plastic. And it's an industry that's growing.

Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia? Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jul 1, 2019 at 9:26 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Brit -- I love your examples, and your observation is a good one. I read somewhere that if we reverted to how we lived in the 70’s, we would be much better off wrt emissions. The way we live has changed a lot in a short time.

@Tom -- If we could do that, the plastics ban would be amazing!

@Crescent -- Good question! I did a post earlier on Palo Alto’s composting, if you want to check it out. Composting is working well for Palo Alto, and anything marked “compostable” can go in the green bin. I think you are right that different composting schemes may differ in what they can take. The City of Mountain View, for example, does not allow PLA plastics in the compost bin.

@LM -- Yikes. I wish we would stop doubling down on these bad practices… Easier said than done.

Posted by Samia, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 10:34 am

If you drive on any highly trafficked roads in the Bay Area, you'll see that single use items are a huge problem. Highway 101 is absolutely covered in litter. It's not only an eyesore but a direct threat to our waterways. I'm all for the ban. Such an easy thing to do. Hopefully it makes a difference.

Posted by Plastics Man, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 2:00 pm

Plastic containers are cost effective. They can be molded inexpensively in large numbers, are very durable, and lightweight when compared to glass.

It is the responsibility of the SE Asian recyclers to make practical use of these discarded plastic materials.

As long as they are non-toxic, these discarded plastics could be used for residential building Materials when compressed into bricks or sheets

I am somewhat surprised at the apparent lack of innovation on the part of these SE Asian countries.

They need to start putting their sharpest minds together and begin creating something useful from this vast tonnage of re-usable plastic.

Fleece is made from re-cycled plastic bottles. Surely some of these 3rd world/developing countries can find other practical uses for discarded plastic.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 2:55 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@PlasticsMan -- Yes, that would help, for plastic that gets recycled to start with. I think this graphic from The Economist (2018) is telling.

Posted by onus is on you and me at home, a resident of Slater,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 4:38 pm

"It is the responsibility of the SE Asian recyclers to make practical use of..." OUR discarded plastic materials.

Say what?

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 4:58 pm

Neal is a registered user.

A ban on plastic straws, produce bags and utensils is a meaningless gesture. The reason plastic and cigarette butts are poisoning our oceans is because people don't dispose of these items properly. We have a gargantuan litter problem. We are a nation of litter bugs. We should aggressively arrest litterers and punish them by making them pick up trash along our highways, waterways and gutters.

It's OK to put our plastic waste in landfills. If it can't be recycled I can't think of a better place to put it. Disposal of all our garage is going to get more expensive because it will have to be transported to more remote and costly sites. That's the price we pay for our wasteful lifestyles.

If the City Council wants to make a statement and put a dent in the plastic waste problem they should ban those ubiquitous plastic water bottles and ban the sale of filtered cigarettes. However, without a statewide ban, that won't be of much help.

Posted by Plastic Garbage To SE Asia OK, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 5:02 pm

If the Se Asian recyclers are welcoming the deliveries of plastic garbage into their countries, we are enriching their respective economies.

When they decide not to...then we have a problem. Maybe Africa?

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 2, 2019 at 5:20 pm

"I am somewhat surprised at the apparent lack of innovation on the part of these SE Asian countries."

And I am more than somewhat dismayed at the demonstrated lack of innovation on the part of Silicon Valley, the self-proclaimed center of the innovation universe. It would be amazing if the valley could do something socially beneficial, rather than inventing more varieties of spyware.

Posted by Plastic Garbage To SE Asia OK,, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 3, 2019 at 7:57 am

> They need to start putting their sharpest minds together and begin creating something useful from this vast tonnage of re-usable plastic.

>> these discarded plastics could be used for residential building Materials when compressed into bricks or sheets

>>> Fleece is made from re-cycled plastic bottles. Surely some of these 3rd world/developing countries can find other practical uses for discarded plastic.

^^^ YES. In addition to the aforementioned uses for recycled plastic, the SE Asians could also use the discarded plastics to build small boats for maneuvering streams and rivers in their various locales. Other possibilities include fabrication into eating implements and tools.

They are not making full use of their 'thinking caps'.

Posted by experiment, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2019 at 1:42 pm

4th of July Chili Cook Off, Mitchell Park, 12-5, tomorrow we can observe Palo Alto environmental enlightenment in action. Always awkward to watch everyone struggle with which bin to throw their trash into, or just be satisfied that it's not scattered across the grass. Anyone tracking how much refuse is generated by five or six thousand expected attendees? Perhaps a valid test case of how the amount changes through future iterations of this annual event, as the Disposable Foodware Ordinance phases in?

Posted by Avoiding The Trash Factor, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Jul 3, 2019 at 2:16 pm

why don't guests just bring a small ceramic mug to sample chili and thier own spoon?

then all they have to do is rinse them out for the next sample.

Posted by Collect & Ship, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 3, 2019 at 6:55 pm

> why don't guests just bring a small ceramic mug to sample chili and their own spoon? then all they have to do is rinse them out for the next sample.

^^^Not enough water fountains to rinse out cups and you would have gridlock. [portion removed]

Posted by experiment, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2019 at 10:49 pm

Never heard any feedback on the "GO Box" re-usables trial at the Heritage Park Family Festival after our May Fête Parade two months ago. Seemed to just confuse people, if they noticed it at all.

Posted by Optimist, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 4, 2019 at 11:00 am

For background on the economics of environmental decision-making, check out "Cool It!" by Bjorn Lomborg, "The Bottomless Well" by Peter Huber and Mark Mills, and "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels" by Alex Epstein.

These observations will make Palo Alto heads explode, but:
-- The lifetime emissions of electric cars are very close to those of gasoline cars. Government subsidies are orders of magnitude greater than any environmental benefits.
-- Residential recycling programs (with collection trucks and sorting facilities) are environmental negatives - even without factoring residents' time and effort to sort their garbage. Most recycling goes to the landfill anyway. A glut of scrap aluminum makes recycling that a marginal activity.
-- Residential solar with net metering punishes the poor with higher electrical rates while subsidizing the rich.
-- Climate study isn't science in a formal sense (with hypothesis/experiment/observation) but rather a modeling discipline which so far has not produced good models... But even if you believe the models, big increases in CO2 are inevitable and the best we can do is to adapt.
-- If you believe that CO2 emission is the key, you should support super-dense housing in coastal California so that people in the frigid Northeast (who produce lots of CO2 by using coal and oil for heat and electricity) can move to our very mild climate. You should also advocate for nuclear power, particularly in China, India, and Africa.
-- There is a huge set of projects that benefit humanity far more than any climate interventions: treating TB in India; eliminating all US import duties; promoting economic freedom and free markets around the world; and many more - see e.g.
Finally - there is a frequent suggestion that urgent and dramatic action on climate is necessary to avoid uncertain consequences 100 years in the future. In retrospect, should your great-grandparents have taken urgent action to help us today? We enjoy wealth and comfort they could not imagine - just as we cannot imagine the technological advances of the next century.

Posted by annaloy, a resident of another community,
on Jul 6, 2019 at 1:43 pm

I recently watched a video of wildlife rescuers attempting to pull a straw out of the nose of a large turtle. The poor creature was in agony and would have suffocated. They finally pulled out a long mostly complete straw. I haven't used one since and ask all vendors to leave off the straw and any plastic cap of any drink I purchase. Now I won't buy any drink in plastic and have drastically cut down on any plastic at all. I'm saving a lot of money and have to be creative in my 'fixes'

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jul 6, 2019 at 7:56 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Optimist -- Interesting comment, thanks. Not entirely sure I’d consider you an optimist! There are many people who (understandably) object to what they see as tribal “green” thinking, and they poke often legitimate holes in some aspect of climate science, and build on that to push in another direction. The problem I often have with these approaches is that the other directions are even more filled with holes, which the promoters conveniently overlook. So while the hole-poking can be helpful, the general approach can also be dangerously misleading imo.

I started off writing a “yes I agree with that” (e.g., net metering subsidizes the wealthy) and “no I don’t agree with that” (e.g., climate science is just poor modeling), but I don’t think that will be productive. I’ll try to take up some of these topics as blog posts. Hopefully you will stay tuned and chime in when you see incorrect information in this blog. Communicating about complex topics is difficult. Simplifying a topic naturally introduces inaccuracies. The question is how that can best be done fairly.

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