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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Beyond recycling plastics: elimination of single-use plastics

With the intention of reducing litter, waste, and the use of environmentally harmful products, the City of Berkeley, California enacted the phased-in Berkeley Single-Use Foodware and Litter-Reduction Ordinance. Emphasizing a shift from single-use foodservice products to reusable cups, plates, bowls, and flatware, the ordinance impacts the gamut of foodservice operators.

Ordinance provisions
The ordinance is enforced one year after the effective date with potential exemptions for proven hardships.

Phase I (effective March 27, 2019) is a first-step in waste-reduction and contamination prevention. Accessory disposable foodware items must be provided upon request only, rather than openly available at stations. Examples of accessory disposable foodware items include straws, stirrers, napkins, utensils, condiment cups/packets, cup sleeves, tops, lids, spill plugs, and other ancillary products.

Compost sign available
for download
Additionally, prepared food vendors that allow self-bussing must provide color-coded receptacles for customers to separate their recyclables, compostables, and landfill waste. The ordinance is specific on color-coding to create consistent bussing stations; recommended signage is available for download.

In Phase 2 (effective January 1, 2020) all single-use, disposable food and beverage (f&b) products must be certified compostable and be free of intentionally added fluorinated chemicals. In addition, prepared food vendors must charge customers $.25 for disposable cups; the charge must be clearly identified on menus and listed separately on receipts.

Within food-safety standards, the operator may refuse to fill unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers

With Phase 3 (effective July 1, 2020), all in-house dining f&b must be served on reusable (durable/washable) foodware. Exceptions include certified compostable paper tray/plate liners, paper wrappers, napkins, and straws and recyclable aluminum foil for wrapping items such as burritos. The ordinance requires operators to maintain on-site cleaning and sanitation facilities or contract with off-site cleaning services.

Consumer support for the ordinance is showcased in the January 5, 2020 The Guardian article, The California city that wants to eliminate disposable coffee cups.

The Berkeley ordinance is a solid, strong step in addressing the prolific single-use plastic pollution wreaking havoc on the planet.

A plastic-trashed planet
1955 Life Magazine cover
The October 2019 RiA Magazine article, Plastics: a double-edged sword, articulates plastics history | development and how in a mere 70 years humans infiltrated every nook & cranny of the Earth with micro and nanoplastics. The article opens with how the August 1955 Life magazine article Throwaway Living essentially announced the inauguration of single-use plastic for common household use.

While early plastic usage related to the manufacturing of durable goods, in the 1950's single-use plastic packaging and products were introduced; thus, the onset of plastic pollution.

Humans essentially trashed the planet with prolific plastic pollution that now inhabits every nook and cranny of the Earth. As discovered in prominent research, macro and nanoplastic pollution is prevalent from the arctic snow caps to the depths of the oceans and everywhere in between. Scientists are merely beginning to study the health ramifications of humans, animals, plants and microbial life literally breathing, eating and drinking plastics in its macro, micro and nano forms.

In empowering leadership roles, global non-profit organizations are working to bring the Earth back to a healthy, balanced state. The non-profits are educating on the current scenario, working to stop plastic pollution, creating new manufacturing paradigms, and much more. Below are several examples:
Plastic pollution on a remote beach
  • 5 Gyres continues to educate on the magnitude of plastic pollution in our oceans and beyond. 
  • The Plastic Pollution Coalition works diligently to stop the deluge of plastic pollution with campaigns to eradicate single-use-plastic consumption.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy intends to transform manufacturing design and protocol via two new industry standards: 1> products are made of 100% post-consumer recycled materials and 2> products are designed for reuse with company-sponsored programs making reuse simple, easy, and convenient for the consumer.
A shift in the current disposable culture is necessary to prevent the continual deluge of plastic pollution within our soils, atmosphere, oceans, waterways, and the human-food chain.

Elimination of single-use plastic
GreenBuild purified
water station
While documenting the zero-waste practices at the 2019 GreenBuild International Conference and Expo (GreenBuild) hosted at the Gold LEED-Certified Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA), the largest LEED-Certified conference center in the world. it was inspiring to witness solid zero-waste practices executed at the event. Beyond the Three R's - reduce, reuse, recycle, GreenBuild focused on reuse, reduction, and elimination of waste.

Via clear communication in contracts and registration documents, exhibitors and attendees were expected to bring reusable beverage containers; no single-use beverage containers were permitted on the showroom floor. Bartenders were instructed to not give attendees empty, compostable wine cups for use at the water stations. At the USGBC booth, complimentary steel cups were handed out with the slogan "Better buildings are our legacy."

Throughout the the exhibit hall, the GWCCA provided purified water stations with five-gallon water bottles on easy-to-use dispensers.

There was nary a single-use plastic water or beverage bottle in sight within the show.

The RiA Magazine article, GreenBuild walks the zero-waste talk, showcases the stellar reduce, reuse, and elimination practices at the event.

KSU Dining Services
reusable to-go containers
While touring their operations, it was inspiring to learn of Kennesaw State University (KSU) Dining Services' reusable plastic-container system for take-out orders. With incentives to return the reusable containers, there are minimal "lost" containers in the successful program that eliminates single-use to-go containers.

In the previously mentioned The Guardian article, The California city that wants to eliminate disposable coffee cups, author Erin McCormick features several for-profit programs designed to assist foodservice operators to adhere to the new ordinance provisions.

With the Vessel reusable cup program, customers "borrow" chic stainless steel cups for up to five days free-of-charge. Vessel signage includes the copy: GET IN ON: THE REUSABLE REVOLUTION.

While working on Sustainable Food Court Initiative pilots during the Era of Recycling Refinement, Elemental Impact (Ei), along with Ei Strategic Ally Institute for Local-Self Reliance, always recommended the use of reusable f&b packaging where practical.

Compostable packaging concerns
With their ground-breaking ordinance, Berkeley opened the door for main-stream media coverage on the evolution from recycling to elimination of single-use products.

Originally published on Civil Eats, the Eater January 15, 2020 article, The Dark Side of ‘Compostable’ Take-Out Containers, Plastic to-go containers are bad, but are the alternatives any better?, announces the Berkeley ordinance and addresses concerns related to the shift to compostable f&b packaging.

The below concerns are summarized from the article:

1> compostable f&b are single-use and often create unnecessary waste.

2> there are limited food-waste composting sites that accept compostable packaging. More facilities are refusing to accept compostable packaging due to rampant contaminants in many post-consumer food-waste streams. Contaminants include simple trash as well as petroleum-based plastics.

An unlabeled exhibitor-provided cup
generated 
rash at a zero-waste event
3> unless clearly labeled, compostable plastic cups & other products resemble petroleum-based plastic items. It is difficult to impossible for compost-facility workers to sort out petroleum-based plastic from the food-waste stream. Cedar Grove, a major Seattle composting company, spends over $5 million a year removing plastic bags, forks, and spoons from its compost.

4> compostable products on their own do not make compost; often, the post-consumer food-waste stream is composed almost entirely of single-use compostable products with minimal nitrogen-based food. Thus, the necessary carbon | nitrogen-ratio for compost is unbalanced.

5> compost made with compostable products in the feedstock cannot be sold to organic farms. The National Organic Board classifies compostable packaging as synthetic material, which are not permitted on certified organic farms.

6> according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), “the fact that something is compostable is a useless predictor of environmental impact.” A DEQ life-cycle study found the production and use of compostable materials (and composting them) was found to result in higher environmental impacts than that of either non-compostable materials, or compostable materials treated via recycling, landfilling, or incineration.

It is important to evaluate the use of compostable f&b packaging from a holistic perspective, including its end-of-life and complete life-cycle impact.

Though the new Berkeley ordinance is groundbreaking in the public realm, environmental non-profits and crusaders are long-time reusable f&b packaging proponents. Back in November 2010, environmental crusader Aaron Williams produced The New Green Order video. The short video educates corporations on how reusable coffee-cup programs in the office are environmentally and economically sound.

Counterpoint: compostable packaging | reusables
Though the above concerns regarding compostable packaging are overall valid, there are other important perspectives to consider before making purchasing decisions or creating city ordinances.

The DEQ life-cycle on compostables did not seem to address the impact of plastic pollution when disposable packaging is improperly disposed of and/or simply trashed as litter. As well documented in the previously mentioned Plastics: a double-edged sword article, plastics fragment and disintegrate into micro and nanoplastics. It is well proven that microplastics often kill wildlife when consumed and nanoplastics may segue through cell walls into animal flesh or plant fiber.

Reusable glass cup with a
hay straw at a botanical garden
Compostable packaging will eventually decompose, versus fragment, into harmless chemical compounds without the potentially toxic compounds inherent within some plastics.

Though large establishments may benefit economically by shifting from single-use to reusable serviceware, smaller operations may experience a financial and space drain. Additional financial burdens include the reusable serviceware investment, storage area required for the inventory, and the labor, supplies, and equipment necessary for cleaning and sanitizing the items.

Within the cleaning and sanitizing systems, there are also environmental costs related to the incremental water and energy used to maintain food-safety standards.

Bottom line: the time is NOW to eliminate the prolific single-use plastics integrated within our daily lives. In addition to f&b packaging, single-use plastics are common place in household items (laundry detergent, shampoo etc.), vehicle maintenance (motor oil, antifreeze etc.) and beyond.

As an evolving industry, zero-waste best practices are a work-in-progress. National leaders like the City of Berkeley with their bold ordinance are necessary to vet viable solutions for eliminating daily consumption of single-use plastic. Solutions must benefit businesses, the community, and the environment.

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