Plastic cups, straws and cutlery will soon vanish from every restaurant, fast food joint and coffee and tea shop in Mountain View, after the City Council voted unanimously last week to roll out a ban on non-compostable disposable food service ware.
Starting in 2023, the ordinance requires all food providers to ditch plastic single-use food service ware, which includes cups, plates, trays, cartons and wrappers. Instead, they will be required to use either aluminum or compostable fiber-based containers. The ban also applies to straws, stirrers, food picks and toothpicks.
The new rules won quick approval from council members at the Nov. 9 meeting, who saw the ordinance as a means to cut down on food waste headed for landfills as well as a way to improve the health of people who eat in Mountain View. The ordinance requires that all food containers be free of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, which are toxic chemicals that are harmful when consumed.
The narrow requirements for fiber-based containers will affect hundreds of businesses, including 112 full-service restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as 80 "counter service" businesses like bakeries and ice cream shops. The city's 30 coffee, tea and juice businesses, which rely on clear plastic cups that will soon be noncompliant, are expected to be affected the most by the new rules, along with 22 fast food restaurants.
Plastics, compostable or not, have caused a whole lot of problems for the city and its goal of reducing food waste. Food service ware made out of plastic and plastic-lined paper is not recycled in any of the city's waste management programs, and plastics labeled as compostable break down slowly and only in the right conditions. What's more, compostable and recyclable plastic containers have a similar appearance and are frequently misplaced into recycling bins.
The current practice in Mountain View is to remove compostable plastics and send them to the landfill, according to city staff.
The new food ware ordinance coincides with a new state law, AB 1200, that also prohibits the sale and distribution of food containers that contain PFAS starting in 2023. But where AB 1200 falls short, and where Mountain View's ordinance goes farther, is verifying that businesses actually comply with the new rules. City officials noted that AB 1200 has no oversight agency or enforcement mechanism, and that businesses are likely to flout the rules without some sort of local certification.
Early polling suggests that nixing plastic is a popular idea with broad support. A survey of 246 people, 64% of whom are residents, found that 93% support the proposed ordinance and 86% said they would be more likely to support a business that offers reusable and compostable food and beverage food ware. The survey does not reflect the sentiment of the business community, however, with only five of the respondents reportedly owning or managing food services in Mountain View.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said the city ought to emphasize that the ban on single-use plastics is a health measure as much as an environmental one, and that plastics and plastic containers can cause a whole host of health impacts. PFAS have been linked to a weakening of the immune system and increased risk of some cancers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"I hope that this ordinance passes and that the education we do around it emphasizes both the health of the planet and the health of the people," Hicks said.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter said the ordinance, once enacted in 2023, could have a striking impact on plastic litter and trash ending up in creeks. She pointed out that the plastic bag ban had a monumental effect while she worked at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and that the new bevy of plastic restrictions could do the same.
"It made an immediate difference in our waterways," Showalter said. "The amount of trash that was found that had been plastic bags before just went practically to zero."
While plastic straws will be largely prohibited starting in 2023, the ordinance does carve out a small exception for people who request plastic straws for medical reasons, and health care facilities can continue to provide them to patients. The city can also suspend parts of the ordinance in the event that "reasonably feasible" compostable options do not exist.