Plastic cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers, food containers, cups, plastic bags, napkins and condiments. When you throw compostable plastics and bamboo into the mix, it’s hard to know which bin to put it all in, a challenge that city staff said is at the core of Burbank’s new plastics reduction ordinance, which the Council approved unanimously Tuesday.
If it wasn’t difficult enough for consumers to get right, it can be harder still for composters to know the difference, said city staff, who designed the ordinance to navigate difficult waste management concerns and small business headaches.
The ordinance seeks to minimize the use of single-use and disposable food ware for dine-in, while prohibiting non-recyclable and non-compostable food ware items in all uses, meaning many businesses will need to start washing dishes again. Plastic water bottles will also be banned from city events.
Recyclable plastics will still be allowed for takeout, a caveat of the ordinance that Burbank’s sustainability community criticized, but one that city staff makes things easier on composters.
Recent regulations coming down from Sacramento now ban organic material from making its way to the landfill, adding strains on local composters who were previously more selective with the food waste they processed, said Amber Duran, recycling coordinator for the city.
“They were [previously] able to pick and choose what they thought was going to be the best for their compost operation, and now they are in a different situation where they must take items that have been banned from the landfill and then they will have to learn how to manage it, and that includes compostable service ware,” said Duran.
Compostable plastic creates its own challenges for composters because it can be difficult to identify which products release PFAS, a hazardous chemical toxic to humans. PFAS is a “forever chemical” according to Duran, which means it will accumulate in humans over time. Eliminating the chemical is a big priority for state regulators.
It is difficult to identify alternatives to compostable plastics that don’t contain some element that breaks down into PFAS. Even if a business switches to such a product, once an item has been used and disposed of, it can be hard to tell the difference from safe and unsafe products for compost, said Duran. Once touted as viable alternatives to single-use plastic, compostable plastic, bio ware and molded fiber products can actually contain PFAS, so businesses will need to have a keen eye when they make selections for disposables.
Alternatives to compostable plastic, like fiber ware — which is made from wood, bamboo or palm fronds — also pose challenges, said Duran, as they are very tough for composters to break down.
Keeping recyclable plastics accessible to businesses makes the selection process easier and removes the burden on composters, according to city staff.
Because of this, the city shifted its focus to reusable food ware for dine-in.
“Case studies show reusables for dine-in save businesses money,” said Nicky Kershenbaum, chair of the Sustainable Burbank Commission.
But Kershenbaum lamented that the new ordinance does not contain a full-scale ban on single-use plastics including recyclables, not just for dine-in, adding that the Burbank Chamber of Commerce and the Sustainable Burbank commission endorsed such a ban.
“When we just shift from one product to another, we just create other problems. The idea is, can we come up with a way where we don’t create that waste to begin with?” Duran responded.
The ordinance, almost five years in the making, was initially requested by the Council under former Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy. Shortly after, the Council cited the heightened reliance on takeout products caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as the main reason for stalling the ordinance, preventing further strain on already struggling businesses.
It wasn’t until 2023 that the Council received another update from staff on plastics reduction efforts. Last March, the Council received another update on the ordinance, but felt the report at the time was lacking in community input, specifically from the restaurant industry and the Sustainable Burbank Commission.
“Wisely, this Council said why don’t we go back … to get more feedback, more stakeholder input and community outreach,” said Ken Berkman, public works director, at Tuesday’s meeting.
Public Works staff would go on to seek additional community outreach through a seven-month engagement and survey effort, considering a wide array of options for the ban.
The resulting ordinance was one that appeals to the greater business community, but makes some caveats on the sustainability front. The council spent hours discussing various options, and weighing environmental concerns against feasibility.
The result was somewhere in the middle, and with that, Mayor Nick Schultz brought down the gavel.
“Government still works,” he said as he cast the final vote, passing the plastics reduction ordinance.
First published in the February 3 print issue of the Burbank Leader.