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The reality of going plastic free

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Many of us living in the Bay Area have noticed an extra 25-cent charge on plastic cups and to-go orders. In the city of Berkeley, this extra charge in the food service industry is part of single-use foodware regulations. Within these guidelines, the city requires that prepared food vendors charge 25 cents extra for each disposable beverage cup purchased. By doing so, the city hopes to incentivize customers to bring their own reusable cups to limit plastic waste.

If customers do purchase a to-go beverage cup, Berkeley also mandates the cup is certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI. This certification is awarded to products that have passed rigorous testing to ensure they are fully compliant with current compost standards. 

Restaurants are mandated to use reusable foodware for dine-in customers, as well as labeled recycling and composting bins to ensure proper food sorting. Further, to those who are purchasing take-out food, restaurants will only provide disposable accessory foodware items upon customer request. Although customers are able to ask for disposable cutlery, it is highly encouraged that they use their own utensils from home. 

Additionally, cup charges are included on every post-sale receipt given to the customer and are required to be clearly labeled on menus or menu boards. Interestingly enough, the charge is not a city tax, but a fee that ends up going back to the business owner.

Blue Bottle Coffee even goes the length of granting a 25-cent discount to customers who bring in their own cup as part of their pledge to become zero waste by 2024. Then-CEO Bryan Meehan remarked in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019 that this policy will hopefully change how individuals think about their own consumption. Although Blue Bottle Coffee is still implementing such changes, it will be interesting to see how consumers respond to the 25-cent discount in exchange for bringing in their own cup. 

As part of Berkeley’s campaign, restaurants have been marketing such changes with the slogan, “Save a quarter. Save the planet.” Although it is a simple message, it may alter how consumers think about their own daily consumption. 

By prompting consumers to acknowledge the relationship between the simple action of bringing their own cup and the benefits this could have on decreasing their environmental footprint, consumers may begin to realize simple lifestyle changes are not too hard to achieve. 

A team of researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that one single plastic cup can shed trillions of tiny plastic particles that are only nanometers in size. These all-but-microscopic specks can then permeate into the bloodstream, tissues and organs of humans and wildlife, causing disease and cellular change.

Although the effects are still being researched, microplastics in the human body, as well wildlife, may lead to large-scale epidemics and loss of life. As such, it is important to curtail the use of plastic cups for your own health, as well as the health of others, both human and nonhuman.

Even though plastic cups may seem like the true villain in terms of insurmountable negative environmental consequences, paper cups can be problematic as well. Many paper cups, bowls and plates are coated with a plastic known as polyethylene lining. 

A large question associated with paper cups is whether they are recyclable or not. It almost seems weird to ask, as we often associate any sort of paper material — from printer paper to cardboard — as an obvious recyclable material. However, due to the polyethylene lining that coats paper cups, they are in fact not recyclable.  

On top of this, many recycling programs in the U.S. are incapable of properly processing plastic containers, so they need to be thrown in the regular trash bin, which only adds to our growing landfills. Moreover, many compostable cups have to be composted in food waste green bins, rather than in the normal recycling bin, which is not common knowledge to the everyday consumer. If improperly disposed of, these cups can contaminate the plastic recycling process and end up in the landfill anyway. 

Because both paper and plastic cups have a list of issues associated with them, it is best to refrain from using them altogether. Although plastic cups are being phased out, it will take a considerable amount of time until their production is halted for good, which is already unlikely. By bringing in your own reusable glassware, cup or mug to your favorite coffee shop, you can greatly reduce the amount of waste you contribute in your lifetime, making a small step toward reducing your individual environmental footprint.

Contact Ashley Carter at