Plastic and styrofoam overflowing from trash cans become a source of marine debris. Winds and rains can easily carry it into nearby waters. (NOAA via Bay City News)

Marin County supervisors gave their initial approval Tuesday of a ban on the use of single-use plastic containers and utensils at restaurants, bakeries and other businesses that sell food.

The ordinance, which the board approved unanimously, will require businesses to offer to-go food containers made of fiber-based compostable material, as certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, although the county will continue to allow the use of aluminum foil to package food.

Food containers and utensils at dine-in businesses will also be required to be reusable, with exceptions for some items like paper napkins and straws.

Businesses will only be allowed to offer so-called “food accessories” like cup sleeves, lids and stirrers upon request and those they provide must also be fiber-based compostable products, according to county officials.

For businesses like coffee shops that continue to offer disposable cups, the county will require the addition of a $0.25 surcharge. The additional charge can also be waived for those receiving food stamp benefits or those who bring their own cup or container.

Sarah Jones, the assistant director of the county’s Community Development Agency, told the board Tuesday that county staff estimates the switch to reusable food containers and other products would reduce the county’s plastic use by some 100 million items each year.

“By switching to reusable products or compostable products, we are taking the material that was going into the landfill and putting it in our composting systems or not having it go into the system in the first place,” Jones said.

The county first began exploring a ban on single-use plastic to-go products in 2019, but paused outreach to local businesses in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

That outreach – which included more than 20 meetings with local restaurant owners and business groups, a food vendor survey and a county resident survey – resumed in May 2021.

The county also operated a grant program in the second half of last year to provide grants of up to $500 to help local food vendors purchase reusable food containers and other products.

According to county officials, roughly 25 percent of businesses across Marin County have used funds from the grant program.

The ordinance would not be the first in the county with the goal of limiting waste. In 2009, the county banned the use of polystyrene foam – commonly known by the Dow Chemical Co. designation, Styrofoam – to package and sell food.

Similar bans on single-use plastic food containers have also been approved in the Marin County cities of San Anselmo, Fairfax and Sausalito and in the counties of Alameda, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and San Francisco.

“The county would be joining a growing list of communities with many of these features,” Jones said.

While the ordinance would not be enforced for 18 months after a second, ratifying vote by the board, some business groups argued Tuesday that many restaurants and other small businesses are still reeling financially from the pandemic and urged a longer grace period.

“They are just barely able to keep their doors open, many restaurants have (cut) their hours because they can’t get enough staffing,” said Sausalito Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Juli Vieira, who noted that the chamber is supportive of the ban overall.

Both business groups and members of the board suggested adding more funding to the grant program as well as funding to support education on the ordinance could help alleviate the potential strain on restaurants once the ban goes into effect.

Greg Pirie, the deputy director of the county’s Environmental Health Services Department, said enforcement of the ban in the form of fines or other sanctions should be a last resort.

“The main goal is just to be educational, not enforcement,” Pirie said. “All of our other programs in Environmental Health, enforcement is the last point we want to get to, we want to educate.”

County officials noted that the switch from single-use items could even save businesses money.

A study by the Oakland-based organization ReThink Disposable found that Marin County restaurants could save an average of at least $4,300 per year once the ban on single-use food containers is fully in effect.

In total, the study found, the county’s restaurants could save upwards of $2.7 million each year.

Board President Katie Rice likened the ban on single-use plastics to bans on plastic shopping bags, arguing that residents will likely adapt to the change relatively quickly.

“I think of … how quickly the culture changed,” she said. “Now you see, even post-COVID, with the interruption there, folks of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, income levels bringing their own cloth bags into the grocery store.”

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni cited a 2016 World Economic Forum study that estimated that the amount of plastics in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish by 2050 if the production and use of plastic continues at modern rates.

“It’s clear to me that we need to move forward towards producer responsibility, and I see this reusable food ordinance as an important step in that journey,” he said. “It’s easier to prevent plastics from entering our environment by not creating them in the first place.”

The second ratifying vote on the ordinance is scheduled for the board’s May 10 meeting.