Irvine is considering a plastic reduction program that would ban single-use plastic takeout containers in food service and require restaurants to only use compostable takeout containers and reusable dinnerware for dine-in customers.

The proposed ordinance would also require restaurants to charge customers $0.25 for every disposable cup provided and have retail stores, restaurants and food vendors use only paper or machine-washable bags, according to city documents.

Councilmember Kathleen Treseder, who proposed the ordinance last month, said she wants the program to be modeled on similar efforts in Laguna Beach and prohibit the sale of Mylar and latex balloons. Laguna Beach’s balloon ban goes into effect next year, with those found in violation facing fines ranging from $100 to $500.

The Irvine City Council voted unanimously on July 25 — Councilmember Mike Carroll was absent — to develop a plastic waste reduction program, with city staff set to come back in 120 days with a proposed ordinance.

“Plastic is harmful to us. It is a pollutant, it goes into the environment and it never actually leaves the environment,” Treseder said. “Every toothbrush that you have ever owned still exists; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.”

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires that by 2032, 100% of packaging in the state must be recyclable or compostable, 25% of all plastic packaging be cut and 65% of all current single-use plastic packaging must be recycled by then.

Treseder, she said in a memo ahead of the City Council meeting, wants to go further than the state’s regulations — more in line with the path some cities in California, including Carlsbad and Los Angeles, have taken.

Carlsbad banned single-use plastic bags, beverage bottles and airborne balloons in 2022. In April, a ban on styrofoam products went into effect in Los Angeles County which already has a prohibition on grocery stores providing single-use plastic bags. And last year, LA County restricted restaurants from providing plastic straws, utensils and other dining accessories unless a customer requests them.

Treseder, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine, said she takes her students to Crystal Cove State Beach in Newport Beach. There, she sets a timer for 15 minutes and asks her 20 students to count all the plastic they can find.

“They found 380 pieces of plastic on the beach, and that’s a clean beach,” Treseder said about a recent trip.

Plastic packaging or balloons, she said, ends up in the ocean, killing healthy coral reefs. Marine wildlife, too, ingest these plastics disrupting the environment.

While the item received unanimous support on the floor, Mayor Farrah Khan raised concerns about how this would impact restaurants in the city.

“When we encourage the use of reusables such as metal cutlery and glass cups and ceramic plates instead of paper plates or recyclable items, we are increasing the cost for restaurants because not only are they purchasing those items now but they have to make sure they have hired staff to be able to wash those items,” Khan said.

She asked staff to include a cost analysis when they come back to the council with an ordinance.

To help offset the increased costs initially, Treseder said she has asked staff to research sources of funding particularly to help smaller restaurant owners.

The California Restaurant Association, Orange County Chapter did not respond to requests for comment on how this potential ban could affect local restaurants.

Another concern is potential litigation: Irvine is pursuing a workaround to pass a building electrification ordinance that would require most new construction to be all-electric after a federal appeals court in April ruled that the city of Berkeley cannot enforce a similar, natural gas ban in new buildings. The court cited federal law that says only the U.S. government can set energy-efficiency standards for appliances such as stoves, furnaces and water heaters.

“I am relying on the expertise of our city attorney to find ways to accomplish the same goal but in a way that doesn’t potentially violate any laws,” Treseder said.

Climate activist Hoiyin Ip, who serves as the Sierra Club California zero waste committee co-chair, said, “It’s good to see Irvine finally work on a list of plastic bans.”

“We shall see if Irvine has enough political will to adapt adequate ordinances in a timely manner,” Ip said. “LAX banned the sale of single-use plastic water bottles. Hotels and restaurants can do the same.”

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