Eager to help reduce the city’s mark on climate change, the San Carlos City Council signaled its interests in banning plastic to-go foodware and limiting when a merchant may provide biodegradable utensils. 

“It’s never been a better time to address this and especially with our limits when it comes to landfill and anything we can do to reduce that I think would be great,” Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan said during Monday’s council meeting. 

The county’s model Disposable Food Service Ware Ordinance was adopted last February and aimed to end the unnecessary distribution and use of single-use utensils like cups, straws, forks, spoons and other containers that were not reusable or compostable. 

Under the ordinance, single-use ware would have to be made of nonplastic compostable material like paper, sugarcane, wheat stalk, bamboo or wood and certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Utensils could also only be given out on request.  

Some exceptions have been made such as allowing plastic straws in hospital settings and for people with disabilities or permitting noncompostable containers for specific items where an alternative is not available. 

Merchants that distribute prepared food including restaurants, grocery stores, cafes, bars, mobile food trucks, farmers’ markets, health care facilities and private schools are subject to the ordinance. 

The measure is one of many strategies in the city’s Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Plan which is in the process of being updated. But the move could also be a burden on merchants still working to recover from the pandemic, Councilmember John Dugan noted. 

“I’m generally supportive of this but it is an awkward time to be laying new requirements on restaurants,” Dugan said. “It is a tough season for restaurants and many are in recovery mode.” 

Eight other jurisdictions have adopted the county’s ordinance and start date of March 25, 2022, including South San Francisco, Burlingame, Atherton, Belmont, Millbrae, Brisbane and Colma. The city of San Mateo also adopted the ordinance but it won’t take effect until next October while Half Moon Bay opted to enforce the ordinance this July. 

Like Dugan, other councilmembers shared concerns for levying the ban too soon and further straining businesses. Adam Lokar, the city’s management analyst and sustainability specialist, said the items listed in the county ordinance were selected because they were readily available. 

Still, councilmembers agreed the city should continue to engage with merchants to determine when and how the change can be fairly implemented. 

“The sooner we can do it the better but [while] being mindful of that impact,” Councilmember Adam Rak said.  

The city will consider adopting the model ordinance after City Attorney Greg Ruben has reviewed the item and developed recommendations. If adopted, the county would provide outreach and education to local merchants as well as enforcement for the city, free of charge. 

Any more aggressive changes to the ordinance would be the city’s responsibility to enforce. 

“This is long overdue,” Councilmember Ron Collins said. 

In other business, the council shared support for two items aimed at driving greater transparency for development proposals. Both items were brought forward by Rak, one related to improving public noticing of proposed projects and the other calling for developers to disclose whether they’ve hired lobbyist. On public noticing, the council agreed to consider potentially expanding the radius developers are required to use when notifying neighbors of an upcoming project. For residential projects, the radius is 150 feet while a 300-foot-radius is used for commercial projects. 

Community Development Director Al Savay said the department has additional goals for improving its online project notification page including the development of an interactive map. 

No formal action was taken during the study session but the council did agree to place an item requiring the disclosure of lobbyists on a future agenda. 

“I felt the need for looking at increased transparency,” Rak said. “The developer should disclose … whether they have paid consultants lobbying us, lobbying the Planning Commission, lobbying staff.” 

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