Two bioplastic cups in a gloved hand
Oakland's proposed reusable foodware ordinance may help tackle litter Credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Single-use plastics are everywhere. Whether you’re grabbing a quick coffee on the go or getting a bite to eat you’ll usually walk away with some sort of plastic item—even if it’s the “compostable” kind. Cafes, quick-service restaurants and other culinary establishments are teeming with plastic foodware and once used they can clutter our streets, disrupt our recycling centers, and pollute our waterways.

Cities across the state have been moving forward with measures to ban the distribution of single-use plastic foodware in certain restaurants and event spaces in favor of reusable options. Berkeley became the first city in California to pass a reusable foodware law in 2019. Now, the city of Oakland may be the next city in Alameda county to do the same. 

The City Council’s Public Works Committee voted to move forward with the Reusable Foodware And Plastic Litter Reduction Ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Dan Kalb, on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The ordinance would require prepared food and beverage vendors to provide reusable foodware — meaning plates, cups, silverware, etc. — to guests dining in, provide single-use plastic items only upon request, and allow guests to bring in their own reusable foodware containers for to-go orders. Additionally, the city would develop regulations regarding the types of to-go packaging that can be used. The law would also prohibit the sale of packaged water at city facilities and large events. The ordinance will now be placed on the Dec. 5 consent agenda which if passed, is scheduled to receive a final vote on Dec. 19. 

The agenda item comes as the city has been dealing with longstanding issues of litter and illegal dumping. These issues have left the city in dire need of new solutions. 

Kalb began working on a model ordinance in collaboration with StopWaste, a public agency designed to reduce waste across Alameda, at the end of 2021. Kalb used that model ordinance as a base for the proposed ordinance specifically designed for Oakland. 

“The goal is to reduce litter on our streets, and in our waterways, and out into the bay,” said Kalb.

The ordinance also tackles a new issue arising from the growing popularity of compostable plastics, or bioplastics. While more cafes and restaurants are switching to bioplastics, they may not be as environmentally friendly as once thought. Typically plastics are made from petroleum, however, bioplastics are made from organic materials. While some of these materials are technically biodegradable, they require very specific conditions to break down properly. Many commercial composting facilities don’t have the capacity nor the desire to deal with these types of materials. 

“Compostable bioplastics are being certified as capable of being composted in a commercial facility but the reality is that most of them take a really long time to break down, if ever, so they end up being contaminants in commercial compost.” said Miriam Gordon, Reuse Activator for Story of Stuff, a group dedicated to civic engagement around lower consumer consumption habits. “They end up being contaminants in commercial compost.”

Gordon said that organic growers are not interested in taking compost that has these bioplastics in it and thus the commercial composters do not want to receive them because they cannot sell their compost to these high-value buyers. While bioplastics are made from organic materials they can often contain certain chemicals, or additives, that can make the compost “dirty” in the eyes of many growers. On top of all this, there is a lot of confusion over what can and cannot be composted. Thus, it takes time and energy for people to sort through composted items before it’s added to a commercial pile. As a result, much of this biodegradable waste can end up back in landfills, creating additional environmental impacts.

“Bioplastics are generally made from agricultural products,” said Gordon. “So all of the energy and petroleum-based chemicals that go into making that product have a very high climate footprint. And if you don’t have the benefit of those products, ending up in compost, if they instead end up in landfill, then you have, it’s a double whammy of climate impact.”

Oakland’s reusable foodware ordinance is more comprehensive than similar laws throughout the state. It specifically excludes the sale of any type of packaged water, including bottled, canned or water sold in cartons. These packaged water rules will apply to city facilities, city gatherings and large events, such as Oakland’s First Fridays. The city will instead prioritize refilling stations. 

The ordinance could save the restaurant sector over $3.7 million yearly, according to an analysis conducted by independent reuse consultants who worked with the city. The city plans to implement a step-by-step rollout process which would aid in the transition. The city would give food vendors over a year to phase out the current products they have on hand. They will also be working with their partners to provide education on what items will or will not be in compliance with the ordinance. Grant opportunities will also be made available for vendors needing assistance in adding additional dishwashing capacity. There would also be waivers that would make certain vendors exempt if they find the ordinance overly burdensome. During the Nov. 14 Oakland Public Works Committee meeting no one spoke out against the ordinance during the public comment period. 

If the ordinance is adopted in December, advocates say it will have a significant impact on the environmental health of Oakland.

“What we are learning is that the hope that the post-consumer solutions like recycling, and composting, are going to be a solution to this disposables waste stream is actually proving to be false,” said Gordon. “And that’s why we need to go upstream in the lifecycle of products and just figure out how to make fewer of them in the first place. That’s a better solution for the planet.”

Callie Rhoades covers the environment for The Oaklandside as a 2023-2025 California Local News Fellow. She previously worked as a reporter for Oakland North at Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program. She has also worked as an intern for Estuary News Group, as an assistant producer for the Climate Break podcast, and as an editorial intern for SKI Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Sierra Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and KneeDeep Times, among others. She graduated from The University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2023.