Sea Change: Plastic Straws to Local Laws

By Sandra Curtis

The buzz of anticipation was audible in the Brower Center theater awaiting the start of the evening’s program – Sea Change: From Plastic Straws to Local Laws on Wednesday, March 20.  The presenters did not disappoint, in fact, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation for the first presenters, ten year olds Sam (Domingo) and Fiona (Groth Reidy).  Students of Jacqueline Omania’s Zero Waste classroom at Berkeley’s Oxford School, their inspiring presentation chronicled the students involvement in passage of Berkeley’s groundbreaking Single Use Plastic and Waste Reduction Ordinance.   

The program featured some of the most passionate and persistent activists responsible for the strategy, language, surveying and implementation of Berkeley’s innovative ordinance, as well as those involved in the plastic pollution movement from gateway and global issues to health impacts.  The evening reflected the collective efforts of a grassroots movement begun almost ten years ago to stop plastic pollution.  It focuses on a system wide shift from disposable to reusables. The current disposable one is not only unsustainable, but unhealthy.

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, introduced Open Your Eyes, a short video laying the foundation for the global problem of plastic pollution, followed by Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, who introduced the Straws film.  Labelling plastic straws as the “gateway issue” into plastic pollution, Jackie has been credited with sparking a global movement towards action to eliminate single-use plastic straws.

The informative panel included:

Council Member Sophie Hahn (Berkeley City Council Member, District 5) who co-authored introduced and shepherded the ordinance.  She provided a brief background on why it was important to sponsor the ordinance and the specific elements included.

Martin Bourque (ED, Ecology Center), Berkeley’s local champion for all things waste related and in particular, this ordinance.  He gave the local history of how the ordinance evolved.

Miriam Gordon (Upstream Policy Director) – a passionate leader and policy wonk on source reduction for much of her career.  Working mostly out of the limelight, she focused on crafting strategy and writing the ordinance language.  

Samantha Sommer (Waste Prevention Program Manager, ReThink Disposable) – turned the idea for reduction into quantifiable data and demonstrable financial savings for businesses. Her team surveyed businesses and customers, collecting valuable opinion data on elements of an ordinance that would have support.

Jacqueline Omania (Green Educator Leadership award, Oxford Elementary School), a passionate third grade teacher who has been running a Zero Waste classroom for five years, inspiring students like Sam and Fiona.  She took issue with who inspires whom, insisting that the students inspire her.

Dr. Barbara Cohn (ED Child Health and Development Studies) – Berkeley epidemiologist doing seminal research on the effects of toxic chemical exposure across generations and co-principal investigator with Dr. Sandra Curtis (PPC) on ReThink Plastic.  She acknowledged how positive the impacts of the foodware ordinance will be on upcoming generations, reducing the health impacts from the chemicals in plastic in such diseases as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and infertility.  

The audience engaged in a Q&A with the panelists, including Dianna Cohen and Jackie Nunez. The panelists engaged in Q&A among themselves. Guests circulated with the panelists, continuing more in-depth conversation while enjoying light desserts and drinks.

“Live Plastic Free” stainless steel cups were generously provided by John Borg of Steelys Drinkware.  

Notable PPC member Wavy Gravy attended, as did a number of the PPC’s fiscal sponsor, the Earth Island Institute.

The David Brower Center generously co-hosted the event.

Helpful links:

  • Plastic Pollution Coalition’s video Open Your Eyes, narrated by Jeff Bridges.

  • STRAWS film trailer – For showing the STRAWS film with speaker Jackie Nunez, please email her at

  • Berkeley’s Ecology Center. – A great resource to help you start living plastic free.  And for a fun fact, listen to Pete Seeger’s If It Can’t Be Reduced, ©2008 Pete Seeger and Martin Bourque – the lyrics are just as relevant today as it was when written.  

  • For help crafting an ordinance for your town modeled on Berkeley’s, contact Council Member Sophie Hahn here.

  • The work of many Coalition members has come to fruition this week with the BETA launch of the Global Legislative Toolkit for Plastic Pollution Reduction. Be among the first to explore and give feedback the toolkit, an online web-portal for policymakers and advocates to advance policies that reduce plastic pollution. The toolkit is the next step in working toward source reduction for plastic pollution globally.

In a groundbreaking show of support for the planet and future generations, the Berkeley, CA City Council unanimously passed an ordinance focused on reducing waste and limiting single-use plastic on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will be fully implemented by January 1, 2022. A phase-in plan begins Jan. 1, 2020.

Community supporters filled Council chambers and cheered for the local elementary school students, who were dressed in vests attached with single-use plastic items. The students delivered speeches to garner council members’ support.

Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and chief strategist for the ordinance, noted, “We cannot recycle our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction.”

Backed by a coalition of more than 1,400 local, national, and international organizations, a lineup of speakers in support of the measure addressed council for almost two hours.

Supporters included Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) members and partners UPSTREAM, The Story of Stuff Project, the GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Steelys Planet, and the Surfrider Foundation, among others. A letter of support from PPC Notable Member and chef Alice Waters was mentioned during remarks.

Speakers included Annie Farman, a PPC Executive Advisory Board member, who worked closely with the business community to garner letters of support; Sandra Curtis, PPC’s Director of Innovative Projects, who focused her remarks on the health risks of single-use plastic from exposure from foodware; Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff Project and current Executive Director of Greenpeace USA; Angela Howe, Legal Director of Surfrider; Samantha Sommer, Waste Prevention Manager, ReThink Disposables, Clean Water Action; and Miriam Gordon, program director for UPSTREAM; in addition to members of the community.

Council member Hahn explained the need for the ordinance. Single-use disposable foodware and packaging (SUDs) – including plates, cutlery, cups, lids, straws, “clamshells” and other containers – are a major contributor to street litter, ocean pollution, marine and other wildlife harm and greenhouse gas emissions. The use of disposable foodware has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Because the environmental costs of these products are largely hidden to the business operator and consumer, little attention is paid to the quantity of packaging consumed and quickly thrown away. Reducing the use of these products in the City of Berkeley is a key strategy to achieve the City’s Zero Waste and Climate Action goals, and to address the many environmental impacts and costs associated with the use and disposal of single-use foodware and packaging. SUDs often become litter; therefore, minimizing their use will assist the City with achieving storm water program requirements and could reduce costs for maintenance of full trash capture devices that the City has installed in storm drains.

Initially introduced to Council last April, the ordinance was referred to the city’s Zero Waste Commission who held four public hearings and collected comments from over 60 restaurateurs, environmental advocates, members of the people with disabilities communities, and other community members.  This information was used to revise the ordinance.

While recognizing that change is difficult, Hahn stressed that the business community is their partner in this effort which will save the City and businesses money. The ReThink Disposables program under Clean Water Action provided data to demonstrate cost savings to businesses. City officials validated that they would be able to work within the Zero Waste budget allocation to implement the program.

Here’s what the ordinance will do:

Upon Passage of the Ordinance:

  • Accessory Disposable Foodware (forks, straws, lids, condiment packages and other small disposable items) will only be provided by request or at self-serve stations.

  • Food vendors may refuse to fill unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers.

  • The City of Berkeley may only purchase and use reusable or BPI Certified Compostable foodware at its own facilities and City-Sponsored events.

  • Food Vendors that allow self-bussing will be required to provide three color-coded bins labeled for recyclables, compostables, and other waste.

Starting January 2020:

  • Disposable Foodware will be required to be BPI Certified Compostable (the City will post a list of suppliers offering compliant foodware).

  • Food vendors can seek waivers to use recyclable alternatives for foodware items not available or reasonably priced in compliant compostable formats.

  • Food vendors will show a charge of  $0.25 for disposable hot and cold cups (total price of the beverage can remain the same or increase – the charge simply must be broken out, and if a customer supplies their own cup, the charge is not applied).

  • The charge must be visible to customers on media such as menus, displays and receipts.

Starting July 2020:

  • Food vendors offering eating “on the premises” (eat-in) may only use reusable foodware (durable/washable) for eating-in.

  • Food vendors may either provide cleaning and sanitation facilities on-site or contract with a service (similar to a linen service) for off-site cleaning.

  • Technical Assistance and Mini-Grants will be available to support food vendors in establishing new facilities and practices to meet reusable eat-in foodware requirements.

  • Hardship waivers will be available.


The spirit of this legislation is to partner with food vendors to make transitions workable – and effective. Implementation is phased, and enforcement of each phase will focus on helping businesses make the transition. All enforcement must be preceded by a notice of non-compliance and the opportunity to cure or to request a waiver, and receive technical support.  

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