There was hearty support Tuesday night for an effort to make Berkeley “disposable free.” Photo: Emilie Raguso
There was hearty support Tuesday night for an effort to make Berkeley “disposable free.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

In 1988, Berkeley was the first city to ban Styrofoam. More recently, it joined in the wave to ditch plastic bags. Tuesday night, city leaders voted to jettison, in large part, disposable plastic foodware, kicking off a citywide effort to eradicate restaurant waste made of single-use food packaging by 2020.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn and Mayor Jesse Arreguín described their new law as “the most ambitious, comprehensive legislation to reduce throw-away foodware in the United States.” It won unanimous approval Tuesday after several dozen speakers — policy experts, school children, sustainability advocates and even some local businesses — urged officials to vote yes.

“Berkeley could be the ‘environmental pace car of the nation.’” — Annie Leonard, Executive Director, Greenpeace

Under the new law, disposable compostable straws, lids, stirrers, cup spill plugs, napkins and utensils for take-out will now be provided only on request or at self-serve stations. By 2020, all dine-in foodware will be reusable, and all take-out foodware will be compostable. Starting in 2020, there will also be a 25-cent charge for disposable cups to get customers to bring their own.

Berkeley resident Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, told council Tuesday that the city could be the “environmental pace car of the nation” as it demonstrates how to turn away from the dysfunction of disposable foodware.

“The ordinance is comprehensive and acts with the urgency needed to confront the throwaway culture that fuels overconsumption,” said Leonard in a prepared statement. “It is the most forward-thinking approach we’ve seen to date in this country, and one that other cities and states should look toward in shaping their own efforts to phase out single-use plastics.”

Hahn, who received effusive praise from the public and her colleagues on the dais for her efforts to craft a thoughtful law that was responsive to community concerns, said she believed it to be the “best first try” possible — and leaves room for adjustments as the city learns from the process.

“We are doing something new here. We are doing something that hasn’t been done before,” said Hahn. She said Berkeley had been the first city in the nation to take the bold step of providing curbside recycling, adding: “This is our chance to be bold again.”

Arreguín, who called into the meeting from Washington, D.C., said the law would “continue Berkeley’s proud tradition” in environmental advocacy and show cities around the nation that it’s possible to reduce plastic waste before it’s created. He said it would also be an important step toward the city’s “zero waste” goal.

Students from Oxford Elementary urged the city to support the effort to reduce plastic disposables. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Community members and officials alike said they were inspired by a group of Oxford Elementary School students who came to the meeting to describe the importance of cutting down on disposable plastics. The students were able to reduce all their plastic waste to fit in a tiny bucket.

“If they can do it, we can do it,” Arreguín said.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison said that, as a coastal city on the San Francisco Bay, Berkeley has a “unique obligation” to take a strong stance on environmental efforts. She said Berkeley’s trash goes into the bay and ends up on the beaches of countries like Indonesia.

“This will change the way we live in a very fundamental way,” Harrison said. “It’s a very small leap of faith… to believe our community can do something terrific.”

“This will change the way we live in a very fundamental way.” — City Councilwoman Kate Harrison

The law could also inspire businesses outside Berkeley to change their ways and cause a “ripple effect,” said Councilman Rigel Robinson.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said the ordinance would be the “first step in putting pressure on manufacturers to stop manufacturing these toxins,” which would ultimately be an even more significant move in protecting the environment.

Before the vote, a parade of experts and advocates shared extensive data with officials about why the law would make such an impact. According to its authors, a coalition of more than 1,000 local, national and international organizations supported the ordinance as part of the Break Free From Plastic movement. They include UpStream, The Story of Stuff Project, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Plastic Pollution Coalition and Surfrider Foundation.

Miriam Gordon, program director of Upstream Solutions, noted that litter is so bad on some commercial streets in Berkeley that they have to be swept four times a day. She said the 25-cent cup charge would likely be as effective as a similar charge has been on plastic bags, prompting an 80% increase in reusable bag use.

Gordon told council many Berkeley food businesses already use reusables for dining onsite: “You must tell the other 50% to do the same in order to reduce the enormous environmental impacts associated with single-use food packaging.”

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, the nonprofit that has collected Berkeley’s recycling since 1973, told council that foodware waste makes up two-thirds of street litter in the Bay Area and that the average person uses about 235 disposable cups each year.

“Most of the single-use plastic foodware has no value in today’s recycling markets. With China’s ban on importing plastic scrap, cities are actually paying to get rid of it,” said Bourque, who also was a key champion of the new law. “We cannot recycle our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction.”

Speakers said local businesses have actually seen cost savings as a result of moving away from disposables.

In addition, the city will provide hardship waivers to businesses that simply cannot afford to comply with the new law, and mini-grants to businesses that need help to get on board with the new law.

Phil Harrington, Public Works director, said he would need to add staff to implement the new law, along with other start-up costs. He did not mention any specific figures. Harrington said there is money in the city’s Zero Waste fund to support the ordinance, which will require a multi-departmental approach involving public works, planning and environmental health staff, as well as collaboration with “community partners” and the Zero Waste Commission.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns in the process going forward,” Harrington said, adding that he hadn’t “really truly identified” what the costs will be. But he assured officials it would work out: “We are prepared to support and fund this project moving forward.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...