Emeryville's new ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council on Tuesday, not only would require that restaurants discontinue use of Styrofoam, but they must use biodegradable or recyclable food containers. Only plastic containers that are accepted by recyclers are OK.
"I think we need to be better environmental stewards and take some measures to protect our resources," said Vice Mayor Ruth Atkin, who proposed the change. "I participated for years in our shoreline cleanups, and the little tiny bits of Styrofoam end up getting stuck in the rocks. It's impossible to collect all that stuff. It gets stuck in the nooks and crannies, and birds ingest them."
There also are concerns that the components of polystyrene foam may represent a hazard to human health.
Emeryville's new ordinance must survive a final reading April 3. Restaurants will be expected to comply by Jan. 1. The ordinance will be complaint-driven.
First offenses could result in a fine of $100, with increases to $200 and $400 for repeat offenses.
About 50 restaurants, from the upscale to the fast-food joints, would be affected by the change.
It is similar to an ordinance recently passed by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, although both of those municipalities offer an affordability waiver if the costs of the biodegradable containers exceed certain limits.
Emeryville's ordinance states that restaurants must use compostable containers unless an alternative to a take-out product the restaurant uses is not available in another form.
"There aren't too many things left where there is no alternative, only the Starbucks domed lid, but they are working on an alternative," said Peter Schultze-Allen, the city's environmental analyst.
Bob Canter, president of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, made sure all its members were notified of the proposed ban, but has heard nary a word about it, yea or nay.
That could be because an informal survey of some popular Emeryville eateries shows that several either never used Styrofoam to begin with or had already made the switch to a greener alternative.
Ruby's Cafe on Hollis Street, for example, doesn't use Styrofoam, although it does use clear plastic containers for food and paper cups for drinks. So far, the plastic containers have been picked up by the recycler, said Jessica Barragan, the cafe's manager.
"Most of the restaurants who still use Styrofoam are little mom-and-pops," Barragan said. "I live in Emeryville, so I know who uses it and who doesn't, who uses the recyclable paper containers. Those are a little more expensive.
"Emeryville is a pretty green city in terms of recycling programs," Barragan said. "I think the city is doing it mainly to just have it on the books. I don't know of too many other restaurants that use Styrofoam.
Can't Fail Cafe on Hollis takes the whole green thing a step further. Kellie Williams said they use paper food containers and encourage their customers to bring their own take-out containers.
"We recycle food for compost, and we have separate garbage cans all over the place to separate what goes where, bottles, paper, food, everything," she said.
Denny's restaurant on Powell Street uses Styrofoam. Debbie Atkins, public relations director at the chain's corporate offices in South Carolina, said they were aware of the proposed ban and are "evaluating alternative packaging."
"We will certainly work to comply if the ordinance is passed," she said.
Schultze-Allen said the company that manages the Emery Public Market and its collection of restaurants inside the food court wrote a letter in support of the ban.
"They already compost their food scraps," Schultze-Allen said. "It was great that we had support from them because they were probably the biggest users of Styrofoam."
"All their food vendors do take-out," echoed Atkin. "If they can make the switch, then anybody can make a switch."
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