Berkeley, CA has put a new rule into place requiring all cafés and restaurants to start charging 25 cents for disposable cups. The cups, in addition to lids, utensils, straws, and clamshells, must also now be certified compostable. This summer, eateries that offer onsite dining will also be required to serve customers using reusable plates, cups, and cutlery.
Berkeley’s ordinance—one of the strongest in the country—seeks to do away with single-use plastics. Towns, states, even entire countries, have been moving to ban everything from plastic checkout bags and plastic straws, to plastic food containers and take-away serviceware.
Many municipalities are also requiring restaurants and coffee shops to switch to plant-based compostables for takeout meals. They’re joining several other cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, which pioneered such requirements years ago. Even in areas where they aren’t the law, so-called bio-plastics are a booming business, and some food and beverage companies and restaurants have voluntarily made the switch as part of their sustainability plans.
While many have pinned their hopes on these alternatives, some researchers and recyclers caution that an over-reliance on compostable tableware and packaging may not be the solution it’s cracked up to be. In life cycle assessments, it turns out, compostables don’t necessarily outshine plastics when it comes to environmental benefits. And an increase in compostables in the waste stream could, in fact, bungle up the composting process, create more trash, and continue consumers’ addiction to single-use items, detracting from the most environmentally beneficial practices: reducing and reusing.
“It’s nice to be able to make people feel good about throwing something away, but we’re really not changing their behavior or patterns,” said Jack Hoeck, vice president of environmental services at Rexius, a Eugene-based recycling plant that no longer accepts compostable products. “From a climate change perspective, it would be better to reduce the amount we’re generating.”