Should the proposed ordinance pass, most of the single-use foodware pictured above would be banned. Photo: Sarah Han

Patrons of Berkeley cafés and restaurants may find themselves saying “for here” a bit more often in future. That’s because the city of Berkeley is considering an ordinance that would require businesses to add a 25-cent charge for to-go cups and containers for meals.

Unlike previous initiatives that specifically targeted plastics, the Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance would apply to all single-use foodware. The initiative is an attempt to reduce both the amount of waste generated by the city and also to bring down the costs associated with its disposal.

Following the model of the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, the proposal would both prohibit certain kinds of packaging while offering customers the option to purchase a store-provided container for a small fee. As with grocery shopping, customers who brought their own reusable to-go containers would not be charged the additional fee. All store-provided containers, with a few exceptions, must be 100% compostable.

The city has made some progress towards its goal of achieving zero waste by 2020, currently diverting 75% of all city-generated waste from landfills. But while much of what is diverted is put into the recycling stream, that stream is no longer able to process the volume or materials that we are now trying to divert. China is no longer taking many supposedly recyclable materials, and brokers in other countries may receive recyclables and incinerate or dump them – in landfills, or in the ocean.

As an entry point, City Council had previously looked into the impacts of a possible ban on all single-use plastic straws in the spring of 2017. However, testimony from local business owners swayed the council to consider a charge model, as with grocery bags, rather than an outright ban.

At this time the council is not considering any straw-specific initiatives. “That legislation is basically subsumed by this more comprehensive effort,” councilwoman Sophie Hahn, one of the crafters of the Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, wrote in an email.

“Single-use foodware is a local and global disaster, putting litter on streets and in waterways, overwhelming our waste stream, polluting our land and oceans and threatening the health of both humans and wildlife,” wrote Hahn. “We spend a huge amount of money managing trash and litter on our streets, and this ordinance will reduce those costs.”

As with grocery shopping, customers who bring their own reusable to-go containers will not be charged the additional fee. All store-provided containers, with a few exceptions, must be 100% compostable.

There are two main categories for trash management in Berkeley, neither of which come cheap. The first is street sweeping, which is paid for by the city and also by independent organizations, such as the Telegraph Business Improvement District, which hires its own street cleaning crews to tidy sidewalks and storm drains. The second category is city sanitation services that collect properly disposed waste from the city’s businesses, residencies and more than 400 public trash bins. The combined hit to city coffers encouraged the council to seek more comprehensive legislation to reduce the amount of waste generated, especially after restrictions put in place by the Chinese government in January.

Berkeley may have one of the more comprehensive recycling programs in the country, but almost none of its waste is recycled within the city, or even in California. The majority of plastics collected by the Ecology Center and Community Conservation Centers (CCC), the two organizations co-managing city recycling, are processed into one-ton bales and shipped overseas, mainly to China, but also to Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

China’s new ban on certain types of imported waste covers 24 different materials, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common ingredient in soft drink bottles and disposable foodware. China had been receiving more than half the world’s plastics, according to Martin Bourque, head of the Ecology Center, leaving sanitation departments, and cities like Berkeley, scrambling to find alternatives. In the meantime, plastics either pile up or get landfilled.

In Berkeley, plastic bales are stockpiled until a buyer can be located, though “buyer” may be too generous a term. Unlike paper and cardboard, which have positive resale values, plastics have a negative resale value. Over the past several years, the Ecology Center and the CCC have had to pay as much as $90 a ton to have the materials taken away. “To pay to get rid of it really hurts,” said Bourque.

“It’s a very fluid market right now,” said Bourque. “We don’t know from sale to sale what the new price will be and when and if we will be able to move those materials. We’re just concerned we won’t be able to move it at any price.”

For decades, recycling was deemed the solution to managing waste, but increasing the amount of recyclable plastic in the city’s waste stream is not going to help when the problem is too much plastic to begin with, according to Bourque. Especially with the world’s largest customer for plastic taking itself off the market.

“Remember that ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a hierarchy. Start with reduce, reuse and then go to recycle as a last resort,” said Bourque. “Hopefully as a result of China’s ban we’ll see improvements in recycling overall so we’re not exporting our problems to other countries but focusing more on reducing our waste.”

For decades, recycling was deemed the solution to managing waste, but increasing the amount of recyclable plastic in the city’s waste stream is not going to help when the problem is too much plastic to begin with.

For that reason, among others, Bourque supports the Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction ordinance. “Single-use disposable foodware causes a lot of economic problems. It solves some problems for customers and businesses but it causes a lot of problems for cities, neighborhoods and the environment,” he said.

Berkeley businesses pay several times over for the “convenience” of disposable foodware, according to Bourque, having first to pay for the materials and then pay the city to dispose of them. Many businesses also hire street sweepers through neighborhood business associations to keep their districts clean. And around two-thirds of street litter in the Bay Area are food service items, according to Bourque, which often ends up in storm drains. Berkeley’s storm drain system currently faces $208 million worth of much-needed repairs, the funds for which will, at least in part, be raised through property taxes on both residences and businesses.

However, studies conducted by ReThink Disposable, a technical assistance program aimed at helping food-related businesses to reduce both costs and waste, show that by investing a few hundred dollars in reusable foodware in-house and charging a fee for disposables, businesses can net an estimated savings of $1,000 to $20,000 per year in operating costs. Not to mention the added savings passed on to the city for having less waste to manage overall.

“This ordinance is really crafted to support businesses, to save them money, and to do the right thing,” said Bourque.

Though there may be some sound financial reasoning behind the ordinance for both the city and private enterprises, some residents and businesses may require a public education campaign to allay skepticism.

Conversations with a few local businesses and residents this week suggested few were aware the ordinance was under consideration. Many wanted to know where the collected revenue would go, but also needed more information on the current system: spefifically, how do businesses currently account for disposable foodware when charging customers, and who would receive the benefit of revenue collected from the 25-cent surcharge?

Ed Monroe, a street artist involved with the Telegraph Avenue art scene, frequently gets coffee-to-go at Peet’s at the corner of Telegraph and Dwight Way. He does not have a set opinion for or against the suggested ordinance but would like to know more about the fee.

“Do the businesses chip in a certain amount of that 25 cents to clean-up?” asked Monroe. He wondered if the ordinance would work like the restrictions on disposable bags, where businesses keep the collected fee, or if it would work like the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, with revenue going to civic programming.

Businesses will retain revenue collected from the surcharge, with a small amount going to the city for administration.

“I’m a fiscally responsible citizen,” said Monroe. “This money should be transferred towards clean-up, at which point I’d say, yes, I’d pay it.”

The wording of the ordinance itself makes the money trail fairly clear. Businesses will retain revenue collected from the surcharge, with a small amount going to the city for administration.

“Food establishments will keep the proceeds from these charges, and the City will collect an “at cost” fee for administration of the program,” the ordinance reads. “As with charges for bags, customers using SNAP & WIC will be excluded from paying these fees. The ordinance also provides that single-use straws, utensils, and stirrers (which will have to be compostable) be provided only “by request”.

Those assurances may not be enough to allay the concerns of local café and restaurant owners. John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman co-own Comal and Comal Next Door in downtown Berkeley. The two sent a letter to Mayor Arreguín and the City Council outlining their own considerations.

“While we are, in general, supportive of the measure, we have a few points of concern regarding the proposed Single Use Foodware Ordinance,” the letter reads. The two feel there needs to be some clarification around the ambiguity of how certain items will be regulated. For example, the ordinance makes no mention of regulation regarding containers smaller than 16 fluid ounces. They also feel there needs to be further information on enforcement and the many complications the ordinance might cause inadvertently.

The partners are concerned about how businesses which offer delivery — and so package in to-go containers by default — will be able to compete against similar venues in nearby cities where there are no such restrictions. “If the city enacts this ordinance, it will again (as in the case of minimum wage, sick pay, etc) put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage compared with those in neighboring cities,” the letter reads.

“If the city enacts this ordinance, it will again  put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage compared with those in neighboring cities.” — John Paluska, Andrew Hoffman

Further down, the letter asserts that, at least for delivery services, the ordinance is unlikely to reduce the overall amount of packaging entering the city’s waste stream.

“In the case of delivery […] there’s no possible way that customers can provide reusable containers, so they are essentially faced with the choice of paying more for their order or not ordering at all,” the letter reads. “We believe that the vast majority will still order, as they are already paying a premium for convenience. If true, then there will be very little reduction in single-use packaging.”

Paluska and Hoffman also have concerns regarding health codes when it comes to bringing customer-provided reusable containers behind the counter and into the kitchen of food service businesses. They also point out that businesses purchase disposable foodware specifically to match the form of the product they sell. “It’s one thing to fill someone’s reusable cup and another thing altogether to try to put tacos into a container that isn’t suited for them.”

The Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance far from being law. On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council referred the ordinance to Berkeley’s Zero Waste Commission to hold public meetings to gather public testimony and return its recommendations to the council. It is expected that the council will revisit the proposed ordinance in the fall.

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.