City council grows appetite for banning foam takeout containers

New ordinance would also prohibit Styrofoam wine packaging and swimming pool noodles.|

Message to foam takeaway containers and pool-noodle floaties: your days in Sonoma are numbered.

That was the line coming from the Sonoma City Council on March 15, when members agreed to consider strengthening the city’s ordinance restricting the use of disposable food-service products, particularly polystyrene – the soft, white foam used commonly in packaging and as food containers, known for taking centuries to biodegrade and as an oft-seen source of litter.

The council stopped short of voting on the matter at the meeting, as city attorney Jeff Walter had yet to fully vet the ordinance from a legal standpoint, so the council agreed to revisit the issue at its April 5 meeting.

Currently, the city’s ordinance prohibits the sale, distribution and use of polystyrene during activities or events on rented city property. Additionally, city employees and council and commission member are barred from using polystyrene while on city business.

But the new ordinance before the council would significantly broaden the city’s polystyrene ban to include its use and distribution by restaurants and other food-service providers, as well as the sale of foam coolers, packaging materials and pool toys in the city. Disposable straws, lids, cutlery and "to go" condiment packets would be available, but only upon customer request.

The new ordinance was first proposed last year by Zero Waste Sonoma - formerly the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency – which approached the council in January of 2020 as part of a county-wide push to ban the foam packaging products. The council voted 5-0 on Jan. 13 of 2020 to direct staff to develop an ordinance prohibiting polystyrene.

All four of the council members present at the March 15 meeting – Councilmember Amy Harrington was not in attendance – voiced support for the polystyrene ban, with Mayor Logan Harvey quipping that, “Nobody’s lunch should last for a thousand years.”

However, the timing of the ordinance became a point of discussion, following a year of restaurant closures that forced many food-service businesses to convert their business models almost entirely to takeout.

Mark Bodenhamer, director of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, suggested during the public comment period that the ordinance should be phased in gradually.

“These are not friendly products – we would all like to see them go,” said Bodenhamer. But he pressed the council to give local businesses time to arrange for packaging alternatives, as a few of the products that would be prohibited under the law don’t yet have a ready substitute that is “economical and easy to access” such as warm-meal containers, soup containers and wine-shipping products, he said.

Councilmember Kelso Barnett echoed the call for being “a little more flexible” about when the ordinance would take effect, suggesting possibly a year after passage. Barnett also urged the council to time the establishment of the ordinance to coincide with similar prohibitions expected to be approved by county supervisors this year so that businesses in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma Valley are on the same polystyrene footing as those in the city.

However, Harvey and Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti hedged at the prospect of postponing the ban for too long a period.

“Waiting a year is probably an issue for me,” said Agrimonti.

Harvey said the environmental harm done by polystyrene is significant enough for him to “get rid of (it) in the City of Sonoma as quickly as possible.” He said it’s a desire of the community as well.

According to the city staff report on the ordinance, Zero Waste Sonoma conducted a county-wide survey prior to the pandemic and tallied more than 3,000 responses. According to the survey, 91 percent of respondents supported a ban on polystyrene food containers at food establishments; 89 percent supported a ban on the sale of polystyrene foam products at retail stores; and 87 percent supported straws being provided only upon request.

Harvey said the sooner that polystyrene is banned, the sooner businesses will act to replace it.

“The purpose of doing these ordinances is to do some amount of push,” Harvey said. “(To ensure) businesses mode-shift into those other products and get away from products that are continuously harmful to the environment.”

Added Harvey: “The externalities of doing business come back to bite you at some point.”

The council is expected to next consider the updated ordinance at its April 5 meeting.

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