On February 19, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to add an ordinance heavily restricting the supply of single-use food containers in Berkeley restaurants to the Berkeley Municipal code. The ordinance was unanimously passed at an earlier meeting on January 22. The issue surrounding the environmental and economic effects of plastic containers and utensils being passed out to customers has been largely debated worldwide. While most states, and hundreds of cities in California have some form of legislation regarding the use of items such as plastic bags or microbeads, this law has been rumored to be one of the most severe in the entire country regarding this topic. The ordinance was designed by Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who worked closely together with many Berkeley businesses to create a piece of legislation that would incentivise consumers to reflect on the environmental impacts of their choices.
The ordinance includes four main points. First, for dine-in services, only reusable foodware can be handed out. If a customer chooses to get takeout, only BPI-certified compostable boxes can be provided. Furthermore, all food vendors can now only provide disposable utensils and napkins upon the request of the customer, and they must charge a clearly marked $0.25 fee for every disposable beverage cup. However, according to Hahn, this aspect of the ordinance was intended to work as a form of psychological incentive, rather than a tax. Instead of this being an additional fee, for which revenue goes to the city, the charge is simply meant to be a clear representation of the cost of the cup. Rather than this cost being hidden in the end price, it is clearly visible for consumers in order to incentivise them to bring their own beverage cup, and to save this amount of money. “That is our first attempt to get [the citizens of Berkeley] in a reusable mindset,” said Hahn.
This ordinance was heavily backed by over 1,000 local, national, and international organizations, such as the Ecology Center, Clean Water Action, UpStream, The Story of Stuff Project, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Surfrider Foundation. Many of them argued that the issue of plastic pollution worldwide has not been taken seriously by lawmakers, and that legislation like this are only very small steps in the right direction. Hahn also spoke about the dangers of overestimating the power of recycling. She mentioned that when recycling was invented it seemed like the way that we were going to save the planet, which made people begin to act carelessly with their trash. “Recycling never was the ultimate solution and now is not a solution at all,” said Hahn. “We have to reduce the amount of things we throw away. That’s the ultimate goal here.”
In addition to this clear motivation behind the ordinance, Hahn also stated that there was an economic incentive. “It’s costly. Your tax dollars pay to clean all this [trash] up,” said Hahn in regards to waste that ends up in Berkeley streets or creeks. Ultimately, she believes this ordinance will, indirectly, save the citizens and businesses money.
Even so, progressive legislation such as this will always have an opportunity cost. Berkeley businesses will undoubtedly have to carry the cost of switching over to more environmentally conscious actions, although there have been discussions of mini-grants being handed out to help them during their transition. Eventually, this could also lead to an increase in prices, even though that is still completely up to each individual business, with no price changes being forced by the ordinance.
This does not seem to worry BHS junior Rachel Pierce, who eats lunch and breakfast in the downtown area at least two to three times each week. “Many places in downtown Berkeley, such as People’s Cafe and Maison Bleue, already use recyclable boxes, so I think many business[es] won’t even have to change,” she said.
Most of these changes are expected to be enacted by 2022, with planning beginning in 2020. Hahn appears to maintain hope about the ambitions of future generations to save the world from unsustainable and horrifying levels of plastic use. “You have to demand that these kinds of things get done, because we are not leaving … [the] planet in very good shape,” said Hahn.