Sustainability Infrastructure

This California city has declared war on disposable coffee cups

The California city trying to get rid of disposable coffee cups

Story at a glance

  • The city of Berkeley, Calif., just enacted ambitious new legislation to cut down on wasteful packaging in restaurants and cafes.
  • The new law will charge customers a fee for every disposable coffee cup, require all to-go food containers be compostable and, eventually, require cafes and restaurants to provide multiuse foodware to customers eating in.
  • Other cities in California and Europe have similar bans in the works, but advocates hope even more will decide to follow Berkeley’s lead.

On Jan. 1, Berkeley, Calif., rolled out a new law that aims to dramatically reduce disposable food packaging. Cafes and restaurants now must charge 25 cents for every disposable cup, make to-go containers compostable and, in July, make all foodware for customers dining in reusable — think porcelain plates and metal cutlery. 

The sweeping law sets a new standard in America for eliminating single-use items that its proponents hope will inspire other cities, the Guardian reports. Local officials estimate that Berkeley residents throw out 40 million disposable cups annually. 

“Everybody understands, we have to make these changes for our planet and our community,” Sophie Hahn, Berkeley city council member and author of the legislation, told the Guardian. “We fed ourselves and hydrated without throwaway containers for millennia, and we can do it again.”

The coffee cups headlining the law may not seem like a big deal. After all, aren’t they recyclable or compostable already? In fact, most are lined with plastic, which lands them in the trash heap along with styrofoam and other takeout containers. 

Elsewhere in the environmentally conscious San Francisco Bay Area where Berkeley is located, cafes and restaurants are voluntarily ditching disposable cups and trying to reduce waste. At Perch Coffee House in Oakland, Calif., customers can pay a deposit to take their coffee to-go in a glass jar, and the coffee company Blue Bottle will begin piloting a single-use cup ban in some of its Bay Area locations.

Back in Berkeley, a free program called Vessel allows customers in nine cafes in the city to check out stainless steel cups that they can carry around for up to five days before returning like a library book. Failure to return a cup results in a charge of $15.

Environmental activists hope this law is the first of many to take a bite out of wasteful food packaging. Other cities in California and the European Union are already planning similar legislation. 

“This is the next policy progression,” Miriam Gordon of Upstream, a national not-for-profit seeking solutions to plastic pollution, told the Guardian. “First there were [plastic] bag bans; then it was styrofoam; the next big thing is disposable foodware.”