Belmont will likely join a growing list of jurisdictions interested in reducing environmental impact by banning plastic straws, containers, cups and other food service products that are not reusable or compostable.

The City Council during a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 26, expressed unanimous support for adopting an ordinance similar to the one the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will likely pass in February or March of next year. That ordinance maintains a ban on Styrofoam disposable food service materials and requires those products to be made from non-plastic compostable materials such as paper, bamboo, sugarcane or wheat stalk, to name a few examples. 

“We have to be forward thinking and it’s undeniable that plastic pollution is a problem,” Mayor Davina Hurt said during the meeting. “Any step we can take to try to eliminate that we should take.” 

Hurt’s council colleagues echoed the sentiment, though Councilman Thomas McCune had reservations about banning plastic straws and lids for coffee cups because the environmentally friendly versions of those products melt when exposed to hot liquids or are problematic for other reasons.

“The intent of it is great. There are a few minor technical details like the straws and lids, but other than that this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Officials haven’t made up their minds about plastic coffee lids specifically and it’s possible the county’s ordinance will include an exception for those products, said Gordon Tong, program manager for the county’s Office of Sustainability.

“Lids are one thing we’re going back and forth on. It’s hard to find a fiber-based lid for takeout coffee cups that’s acceptable to everybody,” he said, adding that many have complained about the taste of fiber-based lids and officials want to make sure there are acceptable alternatives to avoid the safety concern of people spilling hot coffee on themselves. 

The county’s ordinance includes exceptions for disposable food service products made of aluminum, such as aluminum foil, consumers who might need a plastic straw for medical reasons and if no reasonably feasible disposable food service product exists, according to a staff report. 

To illustrate the need for such an ordinance in Belmont, Community Development Director Carlos de Melo said over 800 straws, stirrers, caps, lids and cups collected from local waterways on average during annual cleanup events. 

Pollution in local waterways ultimately finds its way to the San Francisco Bay. Every year, 1.3 million pounds of trash enters the Bay and single-use food and beverage products make up 80% of ocean plastic pollution that comes from land, he said, adding that 67% of street litter is food and beverage packaging.

Once the Board of Supervisors adopts the new rules, they will be in effect within 30 days, but enforcement will not begin for one year to give restaurants and other food service companies time to adjust.

“We want the ordinance to take shape, but in a measured way and allow food providers and preparers time to catch up,” de Melo said. 

The following year after adoption, enforcement will be complaint based. The county will also provide resources for restaurants informing them where to buy approved products.  

The new rules will apply to prepared foods in restaurants, mobile food facilities and farmers markets and will not apply to packaged foods.

The county ordinance will apply to the unincorporated parts of the county and Belmont will consider adopting a similar one several months later, in the spring or early summer of 2020.

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