Berke­ley goes nuclear on sin­gle-use plas­tic

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion -

Thank heav­ens for Berke­ley. The fa­mously lib­eral Bay Area city’s govern­ment may go over the top at times, but is not afraid to take tough and un­pop­u­lar stands against pub­lic health and en­vi­ron­men­tal threats. It adopted the na­tion’s first tax on sug­ary drinks, for ex­am­ple. It was an early adopter of curb­side re­cy­cling and banned poly­styrene (what you might think of as Sty­ro­foam) 30 years ago, way be­fore it was hip to do so.

So per­haps it was only nat­u­ral that Berke­ley would be the first Cal­i­for­nia city to take on the chal­lenge of craft­ing a truly com­pre­hen­sive plan to re­duce sin­gle-use plas­tic trash. Af­ter months of hear­ings and study, the City Coun­cil adopted the Sin­gle-Use Dis­pos­able Food­ware and Lit­ter Re­duc­tion Or­di­nance on Tues­day to force a shift from plas­tic to com­postable food con­tain­ers. If ev­ery­thing goes as planned, by this time next year the flow of plas­tic con­tain­ers, cups, lids and uten­sils from restau­rants, fast-food out­lets and other busi­nesses serv­ing pre­pared food within city lim­its will have vir­tu­ally stopped.

The city’s goal, how­ever, is not just to change the com­po­si­tion of its trash piles. It’s also to re­duce them. Waste, no mat­ter its makeup, comes with a cost to man­age. (At least part of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the new or­di­nance is to cut back on cleanup costs and to meet re­gional goals of zero lit­ter in stormwa­ter by 2022.) To that end, Berke­ley con­sumers will be re­quired to pay an ex­tra quar­ter on ev­ery take­out cup they use, even af­ter restau­rants switch to com­postable ones.

City of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that about 40 mil­lion to-go cups are used ev­ery year in Berke­ley alone, so the fee will gen­er­ate a fairly siz­able amount of cash. The busi­nesses get to keep the money and can use it to off­set the higher cost of sup­ply­ing com­postable take­out con­tain­ers, but they are re- quired to make sure that cus­tomers know they are get­ting dinged for not bring­ing in a re­us­able cup. Fees are known to change be­hav­iors.

Also, dine-in restau­rants in Berke­ley will be pro­hib­ited from us­ing any­thing but re­us­able cups, forks, plates and the like, start­ing in mid 2020.

There are other el­e­ments of the or­di­nance that bear men­tion­ing. The city plans to set up a grant pro­gram to help dine-in restau­rants make the tran­si­tion to re­us­able plates and cups. The city will in­stall more com­post­ing bins to deal with both the heavy vol­ume of com­postable take­out con­tain­ers as well the food re­mains they carry. And in three years, the city plans to es­tab­lish a pro­gram to de­velop re­us­able take­out con­tain­ers, which has never been done on a large scale so far. If the city can find a model that works, that could be a game-changer for take­out trash world­wide.

In short, this is a big deal, and of­fi­cials in other cities and the state cap­i­tal ought to pay close at­ten­tion. It’s the kind of broad ap­proach we have urged pol­i­cy­mak­ers to de­velop, given the vast amount of plas­tic waste ac­cu­mu­lat­ing on the planet — par­tic­u­larly in oceans, rivers and other wa­ter­ways. So far, the re­sponse has been to adopt bans or re­stric­tions on in­di­vid­ual items, such as gro­cery bags or plas­tic drink­ing straws. Those kinds of poli­cies get at­ten­tion but don’t make ap­pre- cia­ble dents in the stag­ger­ingly high — and ev­er­grow­ing — vol­ume of dis­pos­able plas­tic pro­duced ev­ery year.

Mean­while, plas­tic is pil­ing up in the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment be­cause it doesn’t biode­grade. In­stead, it breaks down into small pieces that are eas­ily in­gested by sea birds and crea­tures, killing some of them. Mi­croplas­tic par­ti­cles, which may con­tain tox­ins, have been found pretty much ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing in our drink­ing wa­ter and in the food chain. The long-term health ef­fects of this aren’t well stud­ied, but are un­likely to pro­mote good health.

Berke­ley, at least, an­swered the call to think beyond bags and straws. And while we’re not en­dors­ing ev­ery piece of this com­plex or­di­nance, of­fi­cials there de­serve credit for the courage and pa­tience it took to en­act such an am­bi­tious, ag­gres­sive waste re­duc­tion ef­fort that could serve as the test case for other cities and states.

Ed­i­tor’s note: Edi­to­ri­als from other news­pa­pers are of­fered to stim­u­late de­bate and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the opin­ion of The Tri­bune.


Dis­pos­able cups like this one, shown here by Fat Slice pizza em­ployee Gus­tavo Munoz, soon will be sub­ject to a 25-cent tax in the city of Berke­ley.

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