WALNUT CREEK -- Customers may soon be surprised to find their minestrone can no longer served in those well-known white foam takeout containers.

That could happen if the Walnut Creek City Council decides to move forward Tuesday with a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers. Some city leaders have wanted a ban for years.

Such an ordinance would prohibit the distribution of polystyrene-based disposable food serviceware by all food vendors. This includes, but is not limited to, restaurants, coffee shops, cafeterias and mobile food trucks that currently use the foam containers to serve takeout food.

In a survey of 138 responding restaurants, the city found the majority of businesses already use products other than polystyrene for takeout. In fact, most fine-dining restaurants and fast-food restaurants don't use polystyrene, said Rinta Perkins, Walnut Creek's clean water program manager. The biggest use comes from the smaller "mom and pop" shops, she said.

"But if you ask them the question, 'Do you see any issue (with no longer using polystyrene)?' the majority of them say it's not a big deal," she said.

Richmond and El Cerrito have also banned the foam containers.

If approved by the Walnut Creek council, the polystyrene ban would likely begin Dec. 18, the same day a separate plastic bag ban is set to go into effect for restaurants.


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For Walnut Creek, the polystyrene ordinance calls for an exemption for prepared foods that have been packaged outside the city, coolers or ice chests and certain emergency situations.

The city itself -- specifically city-owned facilities and sponsored events -- would also be prohibited from using polystyrene. All city departments, franchises, contractors and vendors doing business with the city would be prohibited from acquiring disposable food serviceware made from polystyrene, according to the ordinance.

And unlike other cities that may have such a ban on polystyrene, Walnut Creek plans to implement its ban, Perkins said.

The city contracts with the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District to inspect restaurants to make sure they are not doing things like dumping grease down storm drains. If this ordinance is passed, making sure polystyrene is not used for takeout food will be part of the checklist for inspectors, she said.

Violators of the ban would first receive a warning and then could be charged $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for the third.

Like plastic bags, polystyrene foam is not biodegradable; instead, the products break up into smaller pieces that can contaminate soil and water. So the ban would be the city's attempt at trying to meet a state mandate to reduce trash in the waterways 40 percent by July 1 and 70 percent by 2017. Perkins said at a recent creek cleanup she can already see a reduction in man-made trash from things like cigarette butts -- a smoking ban downtown and in most public places went into effect earlier this year.

Also at Tuesday's council meeting, city leaders will get an update from Perkins on how reaching out to business owners about the plastic bag ban has gone.

Restaurateurs, specifically, were upset they are included in the ban on single-use carryout plastic bags, which also affects grocery stores, retail shops and pharmacies.

Restaurant owner Rocco Biale said that if polystyrene is banned, it's not a big deal because there are reasonable alternatives to the foam containers. That is not the case with plastic bags, he said.

Paper is not a good alternative because it rips and tears; vinyl bags used at grocery stores would be health code violation and a plastic bag alternative is 850 percent more expensive, according to Biale.

"Furthermore, the approved (plastic) bag doesn't solve the trash issue, which seems to be council's biggest concern," Biale said in an e-mail.

"No matter the bag, trash is still trash. We're not sure what is accomplished by forcing eateries to purchase a more expensive bag?"

He, along with others, plan to ask the council Tuesday for an exclusion from the plastic bag ordinance. He cites that other cities such as Oakland, San Jose and Santa Monica don't include restaurants in their bans.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.

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