The Last Straws? Several East Bay Governments Aim to Ban the Plastic Foodware. 

Cities of Berkeley and Alameda working on different plans to curb use of plastics.

click to enlarge BRIAN BRENEMAN
  • Brian Breneman
Pat Lamborn and her husband, Jim DuPont, enjoy escaping their crowded duplex for the sandy panorama of Alameda’s beaches. But the avid birders often find themselves scouring the shoreline for something more unpleasant: plastic straws.

In fact, she says her husband has become particularly good at cleaning straws and other plastic debris out of the sand. “He’ll pick up everything,” Lamborn said. “He climbs over rocks and into the mud, and fills up a plastic bag every time he walks.”

Now, Berkeley and Alameda are leading the charge against disposable plastic. Both cities are looking to ban straws and other single-use plastic foodware like lids and stirrers, and councilmembers have expressed hope that other local cities will follow suit.

In the meantime, though, many restaurants around the Bay continue to provide complimentary straws with beverages. But could they be breaking the law?

It all comes down to how we interpret our cities’ existing eco-friendly ordinances. In 1988, Berkeley was heralded as one of the first cities in the US to pass a ban on polystyrene food containers. That legislation created the bedrock for other environmentally focused regulation, and Berkeley has continued its legacy through recent ordinances, such as the plastic-bag ban that came into effect in January 2013.

Berkeley’s polystyrene ban spread across the East Bay, and many other cities have since introduced similar legislation prohibiting various non-degradable or recyclable materials from being used in foodware. But while polystyrene and plastic bags have become rare, plastic straws remain ubiquitous.

Straws are among the most littered items found on beach clean-ups, according to the California Coastal Commission. In the Bay, straws find their way into storm drains that empty into our waterways. Rather than biodegrading, these and other plastic photodegrade into tiny pieces and release toxins, which are harmful to wildlife — and us. The National Ocean Service notes toxic chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and flame retardants are found in our waterways as a result of plastic pollution, and can enter the human food chain.

But the tides may be changing. In 2010, schoolchildren in Alameda pushed to ban the straws provided with their daily milk cartons, after hearing from Jackie Nunez, an advocate with environmental organization The Last Plastic Straw. The Alameda Unified School District agreed to their request and, despite a few messy lunch incidents, the kids have never asked for them back.

In May, Berkeley City Council agreed to draft an ordinance to ban straws city-wide. The City of Alameda quickly followed suit with its own directive after being approached by Ruth Abbe, board member at Community Action for a Sustainable Alameda. Abbe’s referral asked the city to adopt a straws-on-request ordinance, which would keep plastic straws available to customers behind the counter. Alameda Mayor Trish Spencer agreed to bring the referral, but she also wanted something stronger: a full ban on the nuisance plastic, “now.”

And she might not have to wait, because — in theory — plastic straws may already be banned in her city.

Alameda’s existing ordinance on take-out foodware states that vendors must use biodegradable or compostable take-out items, unless no such alternative exists, and defines foodware as “all containers … cartons, cups, lids, straws” and utensils designed for one-time use.

Straws are plausibly recyclable, as is most plastic, but many waste-disposal companies — including those in Berkeley and Alameda — don’t accept single-use plastic because it’s expensive to process. Straws in particular are difficult to sort, clog machinery, and cannot be sold on by recycling companies.

“These single use disposable plastics are not a problem we can recycle our way out of,” Martin Bourque, director of the Ecology Center, one of the organizations which handles Berkeley recycling services, told the Express in an email.

If plastic straws are not realistically recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable, there is reason to believe they are not in compliance with Alameda’s ordinance. That means that, to ban them, the city might not need new legislation at all: just a reinterpretation of the existing ordinance which clarifies that plastic straws fall under its scope.

It’s been done before. Earlier this year, Santa Cruz County was able to ban straws by simply re-evaluating current policy. And it just so happens that the Santa Cruz legislation is nearly identical to Alameda’s.

If Alameda can find a straw ban hidden in its ordinance, it’s possible that several Bay Area cities could be next in line. Oakland, Emeryville, and Albany all have ordinances with indistinguishable language to Alameda’s, stating that straws and other disposable foodware must be recyclable or compostable.

Berkeley, however, will definitely need to pass new legislation, as its existing 1988 ordinance doesn’t include any mention of straws. Meanwhile, Richmond and Hayward’s ordinances both clarify that straws and lids are not defined as “disposable foodware,” and therefore do not need to be recyclable.

What does this mean for East Bay straw-users? If you’re still picking up plastic straws in Oakland, Emeryville, or Albany restaurants, it could be a matter of time before anti-plastic pressure pushes those city councils to enforce their own ordinances and do away with single-use plastic.

Alameda, meanwhile, doesn’t need any such goading. The city’s mayor pointedly told staff at a recent city council meeting she would like to see plastic straws out of the city as soon as possible. If they’re not able to reinterpret the existing ordinance after consulting with the city attorney, the council will draft new legislation — and, in the meantime, the city is looking to introduce straws only on-demand.

Lamborn was at the city council meeting. During public comment, she presented the council with a piece of art that she had made out of straws collected recently. She admitted the artwork might be a little gross, and said the council could give it back — but only after they’ve done something about the straws.

While the legalities are untangled, Lamborn and her husband intend to keep returning to the beach. While he scours the sand for plastic, she’ll be watching the skies for birds. Five-hundred brown pelicans have been documented on Alameda Point. “What a wealth of wildlife,” Lamborn said. “I’d do anything to save the shoreline, and make sure people see these birds.”


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