Does Berkeley, California's foodware ordinance provide a new national model?

Read on Waste Dive

Rina Li | January 29, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • The City Council of Berkeley, California voted unanimously last week to approve a sweeping ordinance aimed at eliminating single-use foodware by 2020, as reported by Berkeleyside and other publications.
  • In addition to mandating compostable foodware for to-go orders and reusable dine-in foodware, the Single Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will also require businesses to implement a $0.25 charge for disposable cups by January 2020. The city must report initial results by 2022.
  • "With the collapse of the overseas recycling market and an influx of food- and beverage-related litter on our streets and in our waterways, waiting is no longer an option," said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, the legislation's primary sponsor, in a statement. "Recycling is no longer a solution — if we want to save the planet, it’s time to reduce, reuse and compost."

Dive Insight:

Berkeley enjoys a storied reputation as one of the nation's foremost sustainability trailblazers: It became the first U.S. city to enact a ban on expanded polystyrene products, launched one of the country's first curbside recycling programs in 1973, and committed to an ambitious "zero waste" by 2020 goal with its 2009 Climate Action Plan. However, as noted in the ordinance, "Despite these achievements, Berkeley has not addressed the significant increase in takeout food packaging littering city streets, filling storm drains, requiring management in the waste stream, polluting our waterways, Bay and ocean, and threatening both human and animal health ... To reach its Zero Waste goals, the City must reduce use of single-use food and beverage packaging."

According to the legislative text, food packaging waste contributes to a significant portion of local litter, with city residents generating upward of 40 million single-use cups per year. The new law, which Hahn and Mayor Jesse Arreguín describe as "the most ambitious, comprehensive legislation to reduce throw-away foodware in the United States," aims to rectify this problem by targeting a wide range of take-out accoutrements — including straws, lids, stirrers, cup spill plugs, napkins and utensils.

Berkeley's Zero Waste Commission has recommended a number of city-sponsored initiatives to support the transition process for businesses, including technical assistance and a mini-grant program to help cover one-time costs. Establishments that can't afford the financial burden will be permitted to opt out of the required changes, and WIC or CalFresh recipients — along with individuals with "significant disabilities" — will be exempt from the disposable cup fee.

Supporters laud the ordinance as setting an essential precedent for other cities around the country, describing it as a direct rebuke of plastic producers' ongoing efforts to engage in waste issues.

"The impact of the Berkeley ordinance will be dramatic," UPSTREAM Program Director Miriam Gordon told Waste Dive in an email. "Policy makers all over the world are seeking solutions to the tsunami of plastics in the ocean. So far, most have focused on eliminating a specific plastic product, like straws. The plastics-only approach results in a transition to paper, fiber-ware, and bioplastic, each of which results in a host of other devastating impacts on the environment. By addressing ALL disposables, Berkeley has created a model that really gets at the heart of the problem."

Kate O'Neill, associate professor at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, had a more measured response to the ordinance's passage. Despite praising the law's relatively broad scope, O'Neill raised concerns to Waste Dive over whether Berkeley has secured "the right kind of industrial composting facilities, at the right scale." The ordinance specifies that all foodware must be accepted by municipal collection programs, independently certified and free of fluorinated chemicals; however, these products, in addition to posing a processing challenge for some organics facilities, can also have higher environmental costs.

O'Neill also expressed reservations over the disposable cup fee's cost impact on low income residents — especially given the Bay Area's skyrocketing cost of living — as well as its potential to lull residents into a false sense of complacency regarding their role in the waste cycle.

"Berkeley should keep in mind that plastic problems here are dwarfed by those in the rest of the world," commented O'Neill via email. "Hopefully residents will be inspired to act on that problem as well, not just sit back and assume they've done their bit — one of the real potential problems with local policy initiatives."

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