Oakland City Council considers banning plastic plates, cups, forks
on November 30, 2023
California and cities in the Bay Area have led the country against plastic pollution: A series of laws and ordinances have already banned Styrofoam and restricted plastic bags and plastic straws.
The next items on the chopping block are single-use plastic foodware — things like cutlery, cups, lids, stirrers, plates, and doggie bags. On Dec. 19, Oakland City Council will vote on the Reusable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, which would ban these items from local eateries and large events.
Disposable plastic foodware often ends up as litter in the streets, waterways and beaches. On Nov. 14, the City Council’s Public Works Committee reviewed a proposal that would impose tighter regulations on restaurants and other food vendors to reduce waste and promote more environmentally friendly consumption habits.
If approved, the ordinance will require reusable dishes and flatware for dine-in customers at restaurants starting July 1, 2025. If a to-go customer asks for utensils — and only when they ask — the law would require that they be given items made of degradable materials, not bioplastics or polystyrene, two common materials which never degrade. The ordinance also encourages customers to bring their own reusable cups and containers for takeout.
Sports arenas, concert halls and other large venues would also be required to serve drinks in reusable cups. Additionally, government offices and facilities would be prohibited from purchasing, selling or distributing water bottled in plastic containers. Instead they would be encouraged to install water refill stations.
During testimony earlier this month, Councilmember Dan Kalb, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilmember Noel Gallo, said that Oakland’s challenge with plastic waste has been present for years but worsened during the pandemic. Oakland is also under a court order by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce the amount of trash flowing into the bay from storm drains and other public sources.
The ordinance is part of the larger Equitable Climate Action Plan adopted by the City Council in 2020.
Kalb believes this new ordinance will help consumers to get rid of wasteful habits. He used the success of San Francisco’s 2007 grocery-store plastic bag ban as a good example of a similar measure. The rest of California followed seven years later, resulting in a 70% reduction in plastic bag waste. Berkeley enacted its own Single-use Foodware Policy in 2019, and 26 other California cities and counties have approved or are working on their own ordinances.
A wide-ranging coalition of environmental groups support the Reusable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance. During a presentation to the City Council, Miriam Gordon, a strategist in the plastic pollution and waste reduction movement, said that 40% of all plastic produced is used for just a few minutes. Then it is trashed, recycled or just dropped on the street. The manufacturing of single-use plastics involves a massive extraction of natural resources, causing significant waste and pollution of its own.
“This is evidence of a system that treats the planet and its precious natural resources as disposable,” she said.
Gordon added that the U.S. food service industry uses nearly 1 trillion pieces of disposable foodware each year, spending $24 billion to do so, and generating 9 million tons of waste. Local governments and businesses then spend another $6 billion a year trying to manage the waste. Cities spend another $11.5 billion cleaning up the resulting litter.
Kalb said different food establishments — restaurants, grocery stores, delis, bakeries, farmers markets, food trucks — would be impacted differently and would have time and support to adapt. For instance, food vendors that do not have dishwashing capacity may request a waiver by demonstrating lack of space or financial hardship.
The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a collective voice for area restaurateurs, declined to comment without seeing the final language of the ordinance.
At the Nov. 14 meeting, Benjamin Schleifer, food coordinator at the Center for Environmental Health, played a video recording on his phone made by three students at Oakland Tech — Anya Verhage, Mohamed Hussein and Gabby Clark. “Instead of clean streets decorated with lights, trees and flowers, they are covered with plastic wrappers, cigarette buds and plastic forks from a quick meal used 10 days ago,” said Verhage on the video.
“Propylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate, and melamine are all plastics regularly used in foodware. I can’t even pronounce half of these words. I don’t want these chemicals from these plastics in my body. I’m through asking, and I’m now demanding that you enact the Oakland Reusable Ordinance and improve my well-being.”
(Top photo: Nonprofit organizations ask City Council to pass the Reusable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, by Luiz H. Monticelli)
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