My Zero-Waste Adventure: The Plot

Hi! My name is Kareena Desai. I am the founder of Perform For Change, a non-profit organization that raises money for important environmental causes through projects and performances, and a Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador.

Recently, my family and I visited The Plot in Oceanside, California. The Plot is a plant-based restaurant founded by Executive Chef Davin Waite and CEO Jessica Waite in January 2020, and is a Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Member.

At the restaurant, our waitress Kat explained how the whole restaurant is zero waste. Here are some of the amazing things The Plot does to eliminate plastic pollution and wastefulness:

  • Use reusable utensils and crockery.
  • Offer menus made from compostable materials.
  • Create a tradition around conserving all parts of food used in cooking. Before we ordered, we were presented with an “amuse bouche” of squash with kale stem relish. Pronounced “ah-myooz boosh,” it directly translates to “it amuses the mouth” in French. At The Plot, they call these dishes, “A gift from the kitchen that we share with each guest at the beginning of their meal.”
  • Growing a garden that provides almost 30% of the produce on the menu. After the meal, we were lucky enough to meet Chef Travis, who gave us an amazing tour around their organic, raised bed garden, which is located next to the restaurant. In the garden, we saw growing all different types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs that will be used in The Plot’s kitchen. 
  • Composting food scraps. Chef Travis also told us how they compost all of their food scraps. The scraps from the kitchen get composted in their garden, and the ones from the tables get composted industrially.
  • Using reusable and biodegradable containers for takeout. The Plot makes sure that their takeout utensils and boxes are completely biodegradable. They have also partnered with Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Member ReVessel to create a reusable takeout container swap program. 
  • Refusing ingredients in single-use plastic. The Plot works with trusted vendors to make sure the produce that can’t be grown in their own garden doesn’t come in plastic packaging. They said if they received any produce wrapped in plastic, they would send it back.

At The Plot my family enjoyed an amazing Caesar salad, “cheesy” truffle fries, tomato bisque, and their delicious mushroom-based “chronic” sushi! For dessert we had a delicious olive oil and vanilla cream “plot cake” and chocolate mousse with walnut crumble.

The Plot continues to serve delicious and waste-free food to their customers every day. They are now planning to open up a new location in Costa Mesa, California. If you want to learn more about their amazing work, please visit their website at theplotrestaurant.com.

Kat, me (Kareena), and Chef Travis

More Resources to Keep Your Eatery Plastic-Free

The Plot is one of a growing number of food businesses now making the change we need to end plastic pollution and wastefulness. And for good reason: In addition to being better for people and the planet, these businesses are helping to advance real, systemic solutions to plastic pollution by tapping into the plastic-free principles: reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerate. 

Do you work in the food business? Restaurant and other eatery owners and operators can learn more about how to reduce plastic in food prep, service, and delivery with Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Plastic-Free Eatery Guide. In addition, we invite your plastic-free eatery to join our Coalition

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On December 19, the city council of Oakland, California, passed a comprehensive new reusable foodware policy that is good for people, the planet, and small businesses. By requiring reusable foodware and beverage systems to exist at eateries, municipal facilities, and large events throughout the city, the policy works to address the urgent interconnected crises of plastic pollution, mass consumerism, and climate change. The policy was authored by Councilmember Dan Kalb, co-sponsored by Councilmember Noel Gallo, and supported by Reusable Oakland, a coalition of 19 local environmental organizations and businesses.

With this new law, Oakland joins the City of Berkeley, which enacted the world’s first reusable foodware policy in 2019, and the 27 local jurisdictions in North America have enacted similar policies since, according to the Story of Stuff Project.

The City of Oakland has taken bold action to change a throwaway economy that extracts limited natural resources and uses polluting industrial processes to make products consumed in minutes that instantly become trash. Serving food and beverages in reusables is a triple play: it’s a climate and plastic pollution solution, it saves Bay Area businesses an average of $4,000 per year, and reduces government costs of litter cleanup and managing waste.

— Miriam Gordon, The Story of Stuff Project

Oakland Recognizes Benefits of Reuse Over Single-Use

Oakland’s new reusable policy will require food and drink establishments to provide reusable foodware—including plates, utensils, cups, and more—to people who dine in, and allow people to bring in their own clean and washed reusable foodware containers for to-go orders and leftovers. Additionally, the law will prohibit the sale of plastic water bottles and any packaged water at city facilities, gatherings, and large events. Instead, the city will prioritize making water refill stations widely available. 

Importantly, the new legislation addresses single-use bioplastics—plastics made from highly processed plants like sugarcane and corn—and recognizes that these materials are not as environmentally friendly as they seem. Bioplastics are not a solution to plastic pollution: they do not benignly break down, often contain or are coated with hazardous chemicals, drive pollution and injustice, and perpetuate wasteful throwaway systems and single-use habits. Even where compost facilities exist to accept bioplastics, which are rather few and far between, organic plant growers in California and beyond have expressed that they are not interested in taking compost with toxic bioplastics in it as it harms soils.

Switching from single-use to reusables helps people and the planet, but it is also a smart business choice. Oakland’s new policy offers businesses the chance to save hundreds to thousands of dollars annually by eliminating the need to continue buying single-use food serviceware and significantly reducing businesses’ wastes to save on disposal costs. Moreover, businesses making the switch report improved customer experiences and increased customer loyalty.

The policy would be rolled out over a year so that businesses can phase out the current single-use products they have on hand. ReThink Disposable, a technical assistance program that helps food businesses implement best practices to reduce waste and cut costs by minimizing disposable product usage, has already helped 500 Bay Area businesses switch to reusables. The city says it will work with its partners to provide education to the public on what items are or are not in compliance with the ordinance. Grant opportunities will be made available for vendors in need of assistance adding extra dishwashing capacity if needed as they adopt reusable systems.

The Oakland reusable foodware ordinance is an exciting step forward for the Bay Area and for the reuse movement more broadly. Disposable food and beverage packaging clogs our streets, waterways, recycling facilities, and landfills. It costs taxpayer money to clean up, and poses serious social and environmental problems for communities. We applaud the Oakland City Council’s recognition that building reuse infrastructure will not only decrease the negative impacts of plastic pollution on our natural systems, but will also provide economic advantages for the majority of food businesses and event spaces as part of a larger shift towards a circular economy.

— Aidan Maguire, Coalition Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition

Take Action

Do you work at or own a food or beverage establishment in Oakland, California? Reap the benefits of going reusable: Use our Plastic-Free Eateries Guide to help inform your decision making on what reusable choices are best for you. Once you’ve made the switch to reusables, join our Coalition to stay up-to-date on solutions and learn from other businesses who have joined our Coalition to commit to ending plastic pollution together. And if you’re an individual, take the pledge to say no to single-use plastic.

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By Daniel Elbaz, PPC Intern 

Like many teens, I love boba tea. The delicious drink has gained popularity with Gen Zers. Boba tea stores are practically our generation’s version of a fro-yo bar! So what is boba tea, where did it come from, and how did it get so popular?

Boba tea, or bubble tea, is made with a tea base, tapioca pearls (boba), brown sugar, condensed milk and sometimes fruit, served cold. This sweet drink was popularized in the early 1980s in Taiwan, where it was apparently invented by mixing tapioca balls, a Taiwanese dessert, with milk tea, which has long been consumed in Taiwan. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, boba tea became very popular across East Asia, especially in Taiwan and China. In the 1990s, bubble tea arrived in the United States via Taiwanese immigrants, first in California then spreading to the rest of the states.

Teens Love Boba Tea—But Not All the Plastic

Boba tea has become quickly popular because it’s a fun, colorful, and refreshing drink, with a unique combination of tastes and textures: earthy tea, creamy condensed milk, and chewy tapioca balls. Additionally, most boba tea shops offer countless flavor combinations to choose from, including different varieties of teas, boba, and fun toppings such as lychee jelly, oreo, or fresh fruit. The multitude of options allows everyone to customize their drinks to their tastes and preferences. Lastly, going to boba stores has become a trendy social activity because people enjoy trying new boba shops together with friends, family, and other boba enthusiasts.

The popularity of boba tea is huge—and still growing. By some estimates, there are around 3,600 boba shops in the United States. Worldwide, the bubble tea market size is valued around $2.75 billion (USD). This number is expected to continue to grow as it has over the past twenty years, and it is estimated that by 2030 the market size will almost double. If those numbers alone don’t prove that boba tea’s popularity has infected the globe, a survey has shown that 94 percent of people in their twenties have bought boba tea in the past three months.

However, whenever I feel like getting boba tea, I also feel a bit guilty. This is because these drinks almost always come in single-use plastic cups with plastic lids and plastic straws. The huge size of the boba tea market underscores the importance of reducing its plastic footprint.

One day I wondered: Could it be possible to enjoy boba tea without all the plastic? With some ideas in mind, I decided to explore more sustainable approaches for buying boba tea.

How to Drink Boba Tea Sustainably

Reuse is the key to plastic-free boba tea. Photo by Daniel Elbaz

My strategy for making plastic-free boba tea focused on reuse. First, I found a few large mason jars, and bought lids made with a boba-straw sized hole. Boba straws are wider than typical straws to accommodate the tapioca balls that give boba tea its name. Additionally, I purchased a pack of boba-sized stainless steel reusable straws. The combination of the mason jar, lid, and straw would substitute the single-use plastic cups, lids, and straws boba that tea shops typically distribute.

My next step was to take to the streets and search for boba shops in Los Angeles, California. When I found shops, I asked employees whether they could serve me their boba in my reusable cups. By the end of the process, I visited a total of twelve boba tea shops. Out of those twelve stores, only five of them agreed to serve their drinks to me in my reusable cups, while seven stores refused to serve me in anything but single-use plastic.

There seems to be a lack of consistent policies around accepting reusable cups at most of the boba shops. I called different locations of some of the biggest chains across the United States (such as Gong Cha, Kung Fu). These stores all seemed to have differing answers on whether they would accept reusable cups, which means that there is inconsistency even within chains. A number of shops also stated they would make the boba in a plastic cup, but they would pour the drink into my reusable cup, which obviously defeats the purpose of going reusable.  (Note: In California, bill AB619 was passed in July 2019, which allows reusable food containers to be refilled by a food facility or a consumer.)

A pattern emerged among the bubble tea stores that served me in my reusable cups: they all initially mixed the drink in a reusable stainless steel or glass cup, then poured it into the cup they gave to customers. This means shops’ method of serving drinks is actually rather sustainable and could easily allow customers to bring their own cups.

Thank you to the five stores that allowed me to use reusable cups: Just Boba Tea House, Teaspoon, Volcano Tea, Ume Tea, and Redstraw Tea Bar. Teaspoon, Volcano Tea, and Ume Tea all sold their own reusable cups. Volcano Tea on Sawtelle Boulevard even upgraded the size of drink for free from a medium to a large for bringing a reusable cup. Find more reuse/refill shops, cafes, and eateries on these maps from Plastic Free Future and EcoRate.

Bring Your Own Cup and Help Create Change

Many boba tea shops are willing to fill up your reusables…you just have to ask. Photo by Daniel Elbaz

While many of the boba shops I visited or called seemed to be at a loss for how to serve me using a reusable cup, I witnessed that if customers demand plastic-free solutions, boba shops could easily accommodate reusables.

It’s easy to find reusable boba cups (I found reusable, plastic-free boba cups at various online and brick-and-mortar retailers). Please join me in visiting your local boba store with a reusable cup. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition would love for boba shops that accept reusable cups from home, or sell their own reusable cups, to join their coalition. Please help our efforts by commenting with names of stores you know and love that engage in these plastic-free practices. 

Ordering boba tea in reusable cups was an easy way for me to feel good instead of guilty about one of my favorite drinks. By joining me in this movement, you can fully enjoy your favorite boba tea too.

If you’re an employee or owner of a food or drink business, we encourage you to visit our Plastic Free Eateries page to find actionable steps, resources, and strategies for going plastic-free. Once you’ve taken action to eliminate plastics, please reach out to join our Coalition!

For individuals and organizations committed to ending plastic pollution: 

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