Berkeley City Council tosses out businesses’ noncompostable foodware

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Maya Valluru/Staff

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Members of the public stood up and applauded after Berkeley City Council members voted unanimously to pass what Mayor Jesse Arreguín described on Twitter as “the most ambitious, groundbreaking policy” in the country to reduce the usage of disposable, noncompostable foodware items such as plates and utensils.

The Single Use Disposable Foodware Ordinance, passed at Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting, seeks to eliminate plastics and other waste from restaurants and food vendors in Berkeley.

“We’ve been bold in the past in addressing waste,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, referencing the city’s history of environmental legislation. “This is our chance to be bold again. I’m not just interested in being bold, but also practical, and I think this ordinance accomplishes both.”

The ordinance, which was amended with recommendations from the city Zero Waste Commission and meetings held with local businesses throughout 2018, will require businesses to eliminate their use of noncompostable takeout items and mandate reusable foodware for in-restaurant dining by 2020. Customers will also have to pay a $0.25 fee if they choose to use a disposable cup, even if it is compostable.

City Council members and proponents of the ordinance hope it will encourage businesses to switch to reusable foodware in an effort to reduce the city’s litter — the majority of which is single-use foodware, according to Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, a Berkeley-based nonprofit. Bourque added that the ordinance is the first of its kind in the nation to directly reduce overall waste, and he hopes that it will “provide a new benchmark and new policy options” for other cities.

Berkeley’s reputation as a city at the forefront of progressive environmental regulation was stressed as motivation for passing the ordinance, with Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, calling Berkeley the “environmental pace car of the nation” in public comment.

The ordinance’s requirements may pose barriers for many local eateries, especially those that have more takeout orders or smaller floor plans, according to Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. Baker said many fast-casual restaurants will need dishwashers in order to comply with the reusable dishware requirement, a serious barrier for restaurants operating in small spaces. Baker added that the ordinance also overlaps with a minimum-wage increase in the city, putting more pressure on small businesses.

Still, Baker said businesses acknowledge that something must be done to reduce plastic waste, mentioning also that the ordinance will likely alleviate the litter that the Telegraph Business Improvement District picks up, which he said totals more than 75 tons annually.

For Sylvia Targ, a campus junior studying marine science and food systems who spoke at the meeting, the ordinance represents a major stride in realizing the campus’s goal of zero waste by 2020, which has been hindered in part through outside trash in campus bins.

“I was overjoyed, and I was really proud. The whole experience was a great way to come back to Berkeley after the winter break,” Targ said. “As someone who has been working on zero waste on campus, it’s really encouraging to see the city make such big steps toward that goal as well.”

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, supports the Single Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance. In fact, the Telegraph Business Improvement District hasn’t officially taken a position on the ordinance.