Bottled water is full of microplastics. Is it still ‘natural’?

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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In the Northern Hemisphere, colder weather, longer nights, and time with family can often mean more opportunities to stream your favorite films and binge new or beloved TV shows. And if you’re anything like us, you can’t help but notice when a character you love has an emotional support water bottle, or when a beloved science fiction show knows enough about the harm of microplastics to make them a key storyline. But how can you mark it when you do spot these moments? With our new Reusables on Screen Form, you can help us celebrate reusable and refillable wins on film and TV.

“Plastic is Forever” is the slogan plastered across the promotional posters for the new Mean Girls movie musical. And while the writers of this movie certainly are referencing the pivotal mean girl group of the movie, referred to as “The Plastics,” the double meaning isn’t lost on us. 

Those of us at Plastic Pollution Coalition and Flip the Script on Plastics like to think this slogan means Tina Fey and the producers of the film understand, on some level, the toxic nature of plastics, and that, loaded with that understanding, the movie just might contain a tangible lack of single-use plastics replaced with more sustainable, environmentally friendly reusable alternatives.

In fact, since launching our Flip the Script on Plastics initiative in 2021, we have noticed more and more reusables popping up in our favorite TV shows and movies. This year alone we found significant reusable water bottle placement in Sex Education (Netflix), Shrinking (AppleTV+), and the movie Theater Camp. But we are certain there are more sightings that we simply have not had time yet to catch and reflect, which is why we need you as a part of our community’s help.

The Reusables on Screen Form

Mean Girls, Paramount Pictures

Introducing our new tool, the Reusables on Screen Form. A quick and easy way for you to let us know where you see reusables, refillables, or language about plastic pollution reflected in popular culture, so that we can highlight these wins, thereby  showing Hollywood that ditching plastic isn’t so hard after all.
The process is simple: If you catch a reusable feature in a TV show or movie, be them brand spanking new, or 20+ years old, open our form and let us know. Give us as much information as you can, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch the exact time or episode it happened in, even the title will go a long way.

What About Single-Use Plastics on Screen?

Jury Duty, Amazon Prime

We are still watching out for single-use plastics that show up on our screens, but at Plastic Pollution Coalition, we prefer to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. And, unfortunately, the amount of plastics on screen can at times be so high it’s impossible to count. We’re hoping that one day the same goes for reusables, and the more we identify these wins on screen, the more we can encourage the entertainment industry to keep up the good work and highlight even more reusables. 

If you spot reusables on screen and submit it with our form, don’t forget to drop your social media handles if you are willing; we would love to celebrate you as well as the plastic-free moments! If we choose to highlight the reusables you found, we’ll tag you in our posts and let you join us in our joy that another piece of media is working to Flip the Script on Plastics. So go ahead, bookmark the form, and get watching!

Learn More & Get Involved

Sex Education, Netflix

Learn more about Flip the Script on Plastics, including additional resources and latest news on how we’re helping Hollywood eliminate single-use plastics from sets and storylines. To get involved with our initiative, contact Amelia@PlasticPollutionCoalition.org

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October 3, 2023 , 3:00 pm October 4, 2023 , 5:00 pm EDT

REUSE23 educates, inspires, and connects professionals in the reuse, repair, and rental sectors. The event offers informative keynotes, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities geared toward strengthening and expanding the reuse economy.

REUSE23 will bring together thought leaders and experts across multiple disciplines. This includes business professionals, nonprofit agencies, government workers, and students. REUSE23 is hosted by Reuse Minnesota.

This is an in-person conference in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

November 8, 2023 , 10:00 am 12:00 pm UTC+13

There’s a lot of buzz around reusable packaging, but where do you start, how do you design a system, and how do you make it a success? Join Reuse Aotearoa for this informative and engaging workshop.  

Designed for anyone interested in reusable packaging systems you will learn:

  • What is reusable packaging and why does it need a system?
  • What are reverse logistics?
  • Hear from an expert panel on their learnings and plans for the future.
  • Where to next for reusables in Aotearoa and what role can you play?

If you’re a stakeholder interested in learning more about reusable packaging systems, this workshop is for you.

Event is free

Location: 90 Keith Allen Drive, Sulphur Point, Tauranga, New Zealand

By Jessica Heiges and Lindsey Hoell

Four months ago, we were launching our reusable container system in downtown San Francisco with an exciting list of companies and restaurants. Our model placed reusable container return bins (we coined them “4th bin”) on every floor of office buildings. Employees were given “Dispatch Goods Memberships,” which granted them access to reusable containers at many local restaurants when ordering take-out, and an easy return bin at the office. It was a thriving circular reuse system.

And then March arrived, as did COVID-19, and our operations came to a screeching halt. As employees were instructed to work-from-home and many restaurant partners closed their doors, we had to adapt quickly. We had always wanted to tackle food delivery, but we didn’t expect to focus on it so soon. Luckily, our team is stacked with passionate superhumans dedicated to solving the waste crisis, and within a month, we were delivering cold, restaurant-prepared meals to our customers, all in reusable containers that we pick up and wash. It’s been exciting to explore this new space, and with single-use plastics increasing 250-300% during COVID, we are adamant that we must solve this packaging problem on a large scale.

As we talk to companies that we’d been working with prior to COVID, we have been receiving a lot of similar questions. We thought we’d share our knowledge and aggregate learnings about how companies are handling returning to work safely and sustainably! 

How to return to work — without all the single-use plastic:

  1. Self-bussing: Create a self-bussing station or reusable return bins for all reusable foodware. 
  2. Dishwashing: If your office doesn’t have a dishwasher, partner with a foodware service provider like DishJoy or DishCraft to get reusable take-out boxes and cups in your office and have those items washed off-site 
  3. Boxed Lunches: If there is a cafeteria, have the food service employees plate meals individually into the reusable take-out boxes for pick-up by employees. Stainless steel lunchboxes are available from ecolunchbox, ReVessel, and U-Konserve. Stagger employee pick-up windows to limit foot traffic to the cafeteria.
  4. Cutlery: Offer a “mess-kit” for employees when entering the building. This could be a clean cup, with cutlery and a napkin, for the employee to use for the day. At the end of the day, the employee can deposit at the self-bussing station or reusable bin. If reusable cutlery is not desirable, offer single-use wooden chopsticks instead of plastic or bioplastic cutlery as the “best” alternative.
  5. Water: Provide additional clean cups/ water bottles for employees and have a contactless refill station (e.g. Elkay).
  6. Foodware: Store reusable foodware in open cabinets (no door), or on the counter.
  7. Coffee & Tea!: Order mason jars of cold brew or chai from Dispatch Goods; enjoy it and we’ll pick up the empty jars on a daily basis. If you have a coffee attendant, have them pour it directly into clean cups and deposit it at the self-bussing station.
  8. Bulk bins of treats/snacks: If there are cafeteria personnel, request that they pre-package treats/snacks in mason jars for pick-up. 
  9. Catering: Cater lunches from Dispatch Goods; receive individual restaurant meals in reusable containers, which we’ll then pick up and wash later that day. 
  10. Take Out: Look out for Ritual.co to soon offer meals and coffee in reusable containers for pick-up orders at restaurants and cafes near your office.  

This is a compilation of the best strategies we’ve uncovered when talking to businesses, so take from it only what you deem safe and applicable! We will be holding a panel to take a deep dive into “returning to work safely and sustainably” at the end of July. If you’d like to be notified of the details of this event, please visit dispatchgoods.com and sign up for the newsletter.

Co-authored by Jessica Heiges, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Lindsey Hoell, CEO of Dispatch Goods

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