More than a year after the city first put rules in place banning businesses from using plastic straws, utensils, and Styrofoam containers, residents and visitors alike continue to wonder why they’re still in use. Officials say the pandemic played a role.
In 2021, Palm Springs became the first city in the Coachella Valley to enact an ordinance banning plastic items and food ware made with expanded polystyrene foam and polystyrene used in Styrofoam containers.
While the ordinance went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, some restaurants still deliver food in Styrofoam containers and pack takeout orders in Styrofoam boxes. That fact sometimes shocks both locals and out-of-town visitors from New York City, Seattle, and the Bay Area. All of those cities have had Styrofoam bans on the books for years.
To date, the city has elected to approach the issue gently, respecting that restaurants here and elsewhere have experienced difficulties unlike any ever seen in their industry.
“Last year was really a learning year for businesses with respect to the food ware ordinance,” explained Lindsey-Paige McCloy, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. “It has been an extraordinarily difficult couple of years for restaurants because of Covid and changes in the habits of customers.”
Staff from the Office of Sustainability and teams from consultant groups spent 2022 conducting an information campaign and not issuing fines. They informed 130 restaurants and other places that serve food — about 30% of the city’s registered food-serving entities – that new rules were in place and that they needed to comply as their stockpile of Styrofoam and plastic food ware ran out.
But 2023 is a new year, and McCloy said that means there will be a new focus on increasing compliance, especially on using Styrofoam.
“When we let businesses know about the ordinance, they’re generally amenable,” she said. “But Styrofoam is still so much cheaper than other alternatives, so it can be a struggle for small, low-margin restaurants or restaurants that rely on takeout.”
“We are not seeing the compliance that we would like on Styrofoam,” McCloy added. “We are in the enforcement period now.”
Like her perspective on enforcing the new composting law, McCloy is adamant that fines will be a last resort, and that, “We want to continue to be allies and advocates for those businesses.”
“I don’t want your money,” she said. “I want businesses to find the right kind of products that work for them and work with the ordinance.”
Reports from the community about non-compliant businesses do not go unnoticed and are especially valuable given the size of McCloy’s staff. She said her office currently has only two full-time staff members, which means they can’t proactively reach out to businesses. They rely on reports from the public to the code enforcement hotline.
Still, “Once a complaint comes in, our first step isn’t to fine the business,” she said. “Instead, we let them know about our Sustainability Scholarship application, which is a one-time $750 scholarship to purchase compliant products.”
That $750 can be used for a more sustainable dishwasher, a new three-stream sorting trash bins for compost, or some compliant food ware.
McCloy’s department will soon be gaining two new staff members — doubling its current size. “We hope to increase some of the proactive outreach to businesses starting late spring or early summer this year,” she said.
Still, that proactive outreach will look more like “gentle reminders” than teams of compliance officers handing out fines to every restaurant.
“We’ve allowed restaurants to use up their food ware that they had already purchased,” she said. “But we really want them to start shifting to alternatives once they use up their supply of Styrofoam products.”
While Styrofoam containers continue to be a sore spot, McCloy said noticeable progress had been made with the use of plastic straws. Restaurant owners have been much better at phasing out single-use plastic straws, and consumer habits have followed.
“People just aren’t asking for straws the way they used to,” she said.
Another bright spot in the shift to sustainability is the effort being made by city employees.
Last week, the Palm Springs City Council voted to implement a new policy meant to consolidate environmental purchasing requirements for city staff into a single document — known as the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Policy. A chart presented during the March 23 meeting where the policy was discussed showed that in the last year, 53% of what the city purchased from Office Depot was considered “green.”