Single-use plastic straws at Asha Tea House in Berkeley. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Alongside plastic bags, styrofoam and secondhand smoke, single-use plastic straws may be the next item to go extinct in Berkeley.

A proposal made on May 30 by three City Council members — Susan Wengraf, Sophie Hahn and Ben Bartlett — calls for an examination of the potential impact of a city-wide ban on the use of plastic straws in bars, cafés and restaurants. The document calls for the Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) and the Zero Waste Commission to perform research and outreach to these ends.

“The idea is to have the two commissions do some outreach to the stakeholders and see if we can create a voluntary program,” said Wengraf, emphasizing that the document, as put forward, is not legislation. It’s less of a straw ban and more of a straw inquiry.

“It’s not like we’re saying ‘you can’t have a straw,’” said Wengraf. “It’s just that there are alternatives to plastic that are less harmful to the environment.”

Berkeley would not be the first city in California to reconsider disposable plastic straws. As a way to reduce litter and to safeguard wildlife, Huntington Beach is already rethinking its attitudes towards plastic straws, largely thanks to the efforts of Diana Lofflin, founder of And Davis is considering a soft ban, under which businesses would provide customers with straws only when asked.

Wengraf is cautious on calling for an outright ban. “I really am not interested in doing anything that will be detrimental to businesses,” said Wengraf, “but I am interested in doing however much I can to improving the environment.”

The issue for Wengraf is not really how consumers enjoy their drink, but what they’re using to suck it up. Plastic straws and other single-use disposable items like soft drink bottles, plastic clamshell food containers, cigarette lighters and grocery bags are cheap. Not surprisingly, they are of low economic value to recyclers and as a consequence are less likely to be disposed of safely and more likely to end up in waterways.

“There’s evidence [single-use plastics are] having a real negative impact,” said Wengraf.

The straw that broke the turtle’s nose

The most tangible evidence of that negative impact may come from a 2015 video of an olive ridley sea turtle undergoing surgery to remove a plastic straw embedded in its nose. The image has become a symbol in the plastics debate, representing how developed nations often prioritize consumer ease over planetary health. Twice the turtle was referenced in the course of interviews for this story.

“Single-use disposables are a real problem for recycling,” says Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which along with Community Conservation Centers (CCC), handles Berkeley’s recycling. Neither organization accepts straws, but many arrive regardless, attached to cups and lids.

While Berkeley has been collecting recycling for decades, Bourque explained, the actual process of recycling itself does not happen within the city or even within the state or country. After it’s collected, Berkeley’s plastic gets baled and sold to overseas recycling agencies in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries. Though “sold” is not quite the correct term.

Not all recyclables are valued equally. Some, like cardboard, have a high resale value. Single use disposable plastic have a negative resale value, which means Berkeley has to pay to have it taken away. And there’s this to consider: not everything in those bales gets put back into the global flow of goods. When the bales arrive in other countries, they are broken apart and dissected. Higher value items get sorted out for resale. Lesser value items get buried or often burned. Single-use plastics are lesser valued items.

“It’s expensive to sort and then it doesn’t have much value afterwards and the markets frequently change,” Bourque said. By comparison, “virgin plastic feedstock is very cheap,” he said. In this case “virgin plastic feedstocks” means oil. So long as it remains cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle existing stock, the market will respond as expected.

The argument against single use plastic is as much financial as environmental. Bourque laid out current figures in an email:

The most recent offers to accept these materials are about -$90/ton (more than landfilling the stuff) plus transportation. When we began accepting these materials in 2013, prices were +$35/ton and we had a direct line of sight to a plastic recycling facility in China with decent labor and environmental standards. Even with our very clean and uncontaminated bales of mixed plastics, with prices this low and markets this weak, we are forced to “sell” to international brokers and we can only guess where the final destination is.

It is a recipe for a race to the bottom where people get paid to accept these bales of plastic, pull out the most valuable stuff, and then dump or burn the rest. Massive amounts of these kinds of plastics are regularly dumped in waterways in Asia which wash out to sea when heavy rains hit. This is how a straw from a Berkeley Starbucks could end up in the nose of a sea turtle.

It should be noted that during the same meeting that Councilwoman Wengraf submitted her proposal on plastic straws, the City Council also heard a proposal from Phillip L. Harrington, director of Public Works, to increase city funding for CCC, the organization co-managing city recycling with the Ecology Center, by $500,000 per fiscal year. That figure is largely owing to the difficulty of sorting plastics and their low-market value. The so-called “Amazon effect” – an increase in packaging waste from consumers ordering a greater amount of goods online – has led Recology, San Francisco’s sanitation service, to propose a 14% increase in customer costs beginning in July.

In Berkeley, Bourque sees less of an Amazon effect and more of a “Starbucks effect,” as he calls it. In a college town and culinary mecca, takeout options abound. Which means, correspondingly, so does single-use trash. “Two-thirds of the street litter in the Bay Area comes from food service,” said Bourque.

Bourque is not sure that a ban on single-use plastic straws is the best way to go, but agrees with the spirit of Wengraf’s proposal. “This is not a problem we can recycle our way out of,” he wrote. “We need to find ways to reduce single-use disposable plastics. Banning straws could be a good starting point, but straws are just the tip of the waste-berg.”

Saul’s Delicatessen in Berkeley has been using stainless steel straws since 2015. Photo: Cirrus Wood
Saul’s Delicatessen in Berkeley has been using stainless steel straws since 2015. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Even without a law, some local businesses have already switched to plastic-free alternatives. Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen on Shattuck Avenue stopped using plastic straws about seven years ago, opting for paper straws until 2015, when they switched to stainless steel reusable straws. They also offer 100% compostable straws for customers who would prefer a beverage to go.

“We just realized thousands of straws a day were going into the landfills and waterways,” said general manager Peter Levitt. He’s satisfied with the decision to switch. “They last forever,” he said about the steel straws. “They’re never going to die.”

To ensure sanitary reuse, Saul’s soaks the straws horizontally in cleanser, then runs them through a wash of 180 degree Fahrenheit water and then rinses. There are occasional mishaps when a straw does not get completely clean but no more frequently than happens for silverware, Levitt estimates.

“Frankly a turtle with a straw up its nose in the ocean is a bigger yuck factor to me,” said Levitt.

Levitt buys approximately 200 new straws a year for the restaurant, significantly fewer straws than the roughly 150,000 he purchased annually when the restaurant still used plastic disposables. Levitt gave a cost of .001 cent per straw for plastics, which meant Saul’s spent about $150 annually before the switch to stainless. The steel straws cost $2.50 to $3 apiece, according to Levitt, for $500 to $600 in annual expenditures on little metal tubes.

Levitt is unconcerned about the added expense. Switching to reusables seemed the right thing to do and easily offset by raising drink prices by approximately 3 cents each. And it doesn’t hurt that the restaurant has less waste as a result. If a ban were to pass, Levitt would be in favor of it.

“It would put us all on a level field,” he said.

David Lau, owner of Asha Tea House, is similarly unfazed. Asha serves both hot and cold beverages, and milk and boba teas, which are often served with enlarged drinking straws to accommodate the addition of tapioca pearls. At present, Asha uses standard single-use plastic straws at its two locations in Berkeley and San Francisco.

“If there were a ban we would just go to reusable straws, which I think is a good thing,” said Lau. “There are multiple options out there.”

Like Levitt, Lau would just pass the cost along. “It would just require that our customers buy a reusable straw,” he said. “And I’m sure there are compostable ones too.”

Waste not, want not

City Council members and the straw ban proposal’s co-sponsors Sophie Hahn and Ben Bartlett see the ban as an easy way to reduce the city’s waste.

Hahn notes that nothing as yet has been decided. “We’ll see what we can work out. What the concerns are and what the support is. And the nuances,” she said. But in regards to single-use plastic straws, she is equally clear in her own position.

“They’re a very heavily littered item,” she said. “They’re also a superfluous item. We know how to drink very successfully without them.”

Bartlett served on the city’s Zero Waste Commission during previous debates around plastic bags and cites plastic as a reason Berkeley struggles in its efforts to reach the zero waste by 2020.

“Plastic is a chief offender of our goals,” he said. “This is the next iteration. It’s the next step in protecting our waterways and our food supply. Ultimately it is our intent to eliminate all single-use plastic waste from landfills and waterways.”

“The pushback that we receive from the business community is that it’s going to be too expensive,” said Bartlett. “It’s the same argument that was put forward against cap and trade, plastic bags, automotive fuel standards,” he added. “But the result has always been continuous economic growth, not less, and increased environmental well-being. “ Laws, in other words, beget new markets.

Councilwoman Hahn is of similar opinion, with an added globalist perspective. With the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris agreement, now more than ever, Hahn sees it as the duty of smaller governments to take up the mantle of great causes when larger ones refuse it.

“There is no leadership in the White House on environmental issues,” she said. “So that leaves it to the states and municipalities. And I think we’re all proud of that leadership. Not just for our own city, but for how we can provide momentum.”

Hahn then provided a list of Berkeley firsts. Berkeley was first city to have curbside recycling. The first to put in sidewalk cuts for wheelchair access. One of the first to limit smoking in restaurants and public establishments. The first to ban styrofoam takeout ware. The first to ban plastic bags. In each case, change spread outwards, and what had once been a “Berkeley quirk” became state, national and even international law.

“I think that a lot of times people like to characterize [these] things as sort of ‘wacky Berkeley,’” said Hahn, “but what we really are is world leaders and we’re moving towards healthy people and a healthy planet. And that’s fact, not characterization.”

The CEAC will meet to discuss the proposal from 7-9 p.m. on June 8 at Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch Library, 1901 Russell St., Berkeley. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.