Berkeley proposes tax on disposable food containers

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The city of Berkeley, California, has proposed levying a tax on disposable food containers, prohibiting the use of takeout containers that can't be recycled and requiring restaurants to use reusable dishware for dining in.

The proposal, presented by Mayor Jesse Arreguin on Tuesday, is part of the Bay Area city's effort to completely eliminate the waste it sends to landfills by 2020.

Berkeley already bans polystyrene and imposed a plastic bag ban that predated California's statewide ban by several years. It is also considering a ban on plastic straws.

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According to The Daily Californian, Arreguin told a crowd at Berkeley Recycling Center on Tuesday that the proposed ban on all disposable plastic materials would be the first of its kind.

"We feel it's essential that we must create a mandate for businesses in our city to do the right thing," he said.

If passed, Berkeley's ban would follow ordinances implemented by four other California cities – Santa Cruz, Alameda, Davis and Malibu – as well as Seattle and Fort Myers, Florida, that limit the use of disposable, single-use items like straws or plastic utensils. According to the Ecology Center, which handles Berkeley's recycling, its ordinance would go further than the other cities' bans.

As proposed, it would prohibit restaurants from using single-use dishes or containers when patrons eat in. All take-out containers would need to be approved by the city as meeting recyclable or compostable standards. The measure would impose a 25 cent charge on each cup or food container provided to customers, but compostable straws, napkins, utensils and coffee stirrers could be offered to customers for no charge.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastics take between 100 and 400 years to break down in landfills, while it never fully breaks down in the ocean, where a majority of the world's trash ends up. Recent estimates of the size of the Great Pacific garbage patch peg it as twice the size of Texas and nearly four times the size of California.

"Single-use disposable foodware is a local and global problem, one with enormous financial and environmental costs," City Council Member Sophie Hahn, who co-authored the proposal, said in a statement. "As a city striving toward Zero Waste, we do a good job with composting and recycling, but it is not enough. We need to start reducing our waste as well."

The drive to reduce even recyclable waste became more urgent after China, which imports scrapped goods from much of the world, enacted new shipping rules that sharply reducing its intake of U.S. waste.

That, in turn, has raised fears that a conservation-minded city would no longer be able to control or even know if its waste were simply being dumped in a landfill or incinerated, sending hazardous byproducts into the atmosphere.

"Much of the low-grade plastic that now gets shipped to South East Asia may end up dumped or burned, despoiling their environment and poisoning workers," Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque said. "We cannot recycle or compost our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction."

But restaurants expressed concern that banning single-use containers at restaurants and imposing a tax on customers will put upward pressure on labor and other costs.

"Requiring the constant reuse of food ware means requiring employees to spend more time every day washing and cleaning those reusable items," Sharokina Shams, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, told The San Francisco Chronicle. "This ordinance will raise restaurants' already-rising labor costs, not to mention, leave some employees with less time to focus on customers and other needs within a restaurant."

In response, Arreguin compared those fears to similar concerns over the Styrofoam and plastic bag bans that were met with similar outcry, but then "it happened pretty seamlessly."

"Businesses implemented it and educated their customers, and people adjusted," he said.

The plastic bag ban resulted in shoppers getting into the habit of bringing reusable bags to the store, and on California Coastal Cleanup Day in 2017, nearly two-thirds fewer plastic bags were reportedly collected than in 2010, before the statewide ban went into effect. Proponents of disposable container bans say customers will adjust similarly, by carrying reusable containers with them when they dine out.

"Convenience is a powerful force in our society, and it has invisible costs," Bourque told The Chronicle. "While we recognize that recycling and composting are good, we forget the hierarchy is reduce, reuse, recycle."