Irvine nixes single-use plastics from city operations as it works on a citywide ban

The proposed ordinance, as it’s written, may be the most comprehensive municipal single-use plastic ban in California, city officials say

Irvine is looking to do away with single-use plastics in what city staff say may be the most comprehensive municipal single-use plastic ban in California.

The City Council on Tuesday, Nov. 28, voted to eliminate single-use plastic and polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam) items from city operations and city-sponsored events. This would not apply to third-party vendors who sell products at city-sponsored events, at least for now.

But a proposed ordinance banning single-use plastic citywide — including plastic bags, polystyrene and plastic containers and utensils in what city officials are hailing as the strictest ban in the state — didn’t get the greenlight Tuesday evening.

After more than two hours of public comment, the City Council said more work was needed on a plan to curtail plastic use across Irvine, directing city staff to continue outreach with stakeholders and launch an educational campaign. The City Council will consider a revised plan later at an unspecified date.

The conversation about reducing the city’s plastic waste commenced in July when the council voted unanimously to develop a plastic waste reduction program.

The ordinance proposed to councilmembers Tuesday evening would:

• Ban the use of Styrofoam and plastic containers and utensils in food service and retail

• Ban the sale of non-compostable single-use plastic utensils and cups, as well as Styrofoam containers and coolers

• Ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles of one liter or less

• Ban all types of single-use plastic bags

The proposed ban would apply to restaurants and food retailers and be phased in in three cycles, with the first focused on education and outreach. Instead of using punitive measures from the get-go, the city would initially take an educational approach and help businesses transition away from plastics before taking more typical enforcement measures, such as citations and monetary fines.

There are some exemptions, said Jenelle Shapiro, the city’s sustainability manager, including correctional institutions, health facilities, residential care facilities and public and private school cafeterias. UC Irvine property will also be exempt from a citywide ban.

“It’s important for us to set attainable policies,” said Mayor Farrah Khan. “We need to do a deep dive into what works and what doesn’t work for the industry.”

Councilmember Larry Agran asked city staff to compile a spreadsheet to illustrate what Irvine’s proposed citywide plastics ban brings in added value to the state’s plastic pollution prevention efforts, most notably, Senate Bill 54, adopted last year. SB 54, on a phased implementation cycle through 2032, mandates packaging and plastic foodware sold in California are recyclable and compostable.

“This is going to require a lot of studying, a lot of understanding on our part moving forward,” he said. “I could not vote for an ordinance that is in a form where it’s evolving.”

But Councilmember Mike Carroll, the lone member who voted against working on a citywide ban, said he found it difficult to understand what Irvine’s efforts would accomplish given the existing efforts at the state level. He wanted to send the entire proposal back to the city’s Sustainability Commission for it to come back with a report on Labor Day.

“I cannot imagine the City Council banning the plastic that covers dry cleaning and boba cups,” Carroll said. “I don’t think you’re realizing what you’re doing. This is an academic discussion. You’re going to make a decision based on academic ideas, and this is a City Council where we have to discharge duties. With all due respect, I disagree with all of this.”

“We can let the state do its job and be the vanguard on this issue, rather than a disjointed effort in Irvine,” he continued.

Among other things councilmembers suggested the city should do going forward were adding more outreach to local businesses, bringing waste management into the conversation to hear about how they’re handling recyclables, developing a list of product alternatives (such as bamboo and sugarcane fiber) that the city can disseminate to the community and starting to ban Styrofoam from restaurants and releasing balloons into the air outright.

The community weighs in

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, city staff posed a survey to local businesses on the city website and advertised it on various platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. In the three-week time period the survey was open, from Oct. 24 to Nov. 15, around 130 businesses responded, staff said.

“We have 17,000 businesses that have licenses here in Irvine producing 275,000 jobs,” Councilmember Tammy Kim said, expressing her disappointment at the low number of responses.

City manager Oliver Chi said there were time constraints placed on staff that made it difficult for them to adequately reach the wide breadth of businesses in Irvine.

Nearly 90 stakeholders addressed the City Council Tuesday, including representatives from various statewide and local environmental groups, UC Irvine students studying environmental science, environmental attorneys, the Asian American Business Association of Orange County, the International Bottled Water Association and Reyes Coca-Cola Bottling.

Around 55 spoke in support of the proposed ordinance and approximately 27 were opposed.

Hoiyin Ip, an Irvine resident and member of the Sierra Club, said Tuesday’s decision to work toward a citywide ban was “a victory of the industries.”

“It’s very expensive to use all single-use plastics all the time,” Ip said. “The (proposed) ordinance is not perfect, but a step in the right direction. The council’s decision of not moving forward with any element of the ban was disappointing.”

France recently banned disposable packaging and utensils in restaurants, and some photos of a McDonald’s in France show fries, chicken nuggets and burgers placed in reusable containers and holders.

“This can be done,” Ip said. “It’s not a foreign concept anymore.”

The city is causing too much plastic waste, said Richard Busch, co-chair of the Surfrider Foundation of North Orange County, who worked with the city to draft the original plastic waste reduction ordinance.

Solid waste is the third highest source of Irvine’s carbon emissions, according to city staff, and the plastic waste carried downstream via the San Diego Creek ends up in local bays and estuaries, affecting wildlife habitats.

“Some of the trash, possibly trash that gets thrown away properly, somehow finds its way into the watershed system, goes through the drain system and finds its way from Irvine, possibly to the San Diego Creek, which then dumps into the Upper Newport Bay State Marine Conservation Area,” Busch said.

But city officials say they understand that small businesses, especially those that may have relied on single-use plasticware more heavily than others, could disproportionately be affected by a ban due to the lack of resources to transition into a plastic-free operation.

Funding and grant opportunities for businesses that need them could be explored, said Shapiro, Irvine’s sustainability manager.

Matthew Sutton, senior vice president of government affairs at the California Restaurant Association, said plastic alternatives are costly and will place a burden on businesses that continue to struggle with pandemic-related economic losses.

“It’s adding price onto our products, which are already at a high due to inflation,” Sutton said. “So it’s just really tone-deaf to the community.”

The original ordinance poses a “fundamental change to the restaurant landscape,” Sutton said.

“In a quick-serve setting — a sandwich shop, a local burger joint, a pizza joint, you name it — you can’t use paper plates. You have to use real plates, glassware, silverware,” he said. “You’re taking places that were built and sited and have no storage capability for those kinds of quantities of dishware we’re talking about and saying figure it out. We don’t have the ability to bust down a wall and put in a new dishwasher. We don’t have control over our footprint.”

The ban up for consideration by the City Council has already been stripped of some suggestions, including a $0.25 charge for disposable cups, because of community input, Shapiro said.

The ordinance had also originally prohibited the sale of Mylar and latex balloons in Irvine, but Shapiro said the city wants to be supportive of businesses that rely on balloon sales for a majority or exclusive source of their revenue. Balloons would be allowed for celebration, she said, but should be disposed of properly in the garbage and not intentionally released into the air.

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