Marin preps food vendors for bioplastics ban

08/25/2021

Marin is hoping to phase out the use of plastics and so called-compostable bioplastics through an amended ordinance governing reusable food products in unincorporated parts of the county. 

Styrofoam has been banned in Marin since 2009, when an ordinance was passed that required restaurants and food vendors to use compostable disposable food packaging, including cups, plates, bowls, trays and cartons. But the facility that handles most of Marin’s organic waste cannot process bioplastics, so the county is planning to expand the ordinance; staff will hold a workshop for food vendors in September and bring a draft amendment to the Board of Supervisors later this fall. 

“We’re trying to give forewarning so owners can plan, buy products and start using them before the ordinance is approved,” said Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who, with Supervisor Kate Sears, led the effort to strengthen the rules in recent years.

Recology hauls the organic waste collected in West Marin—other than in Bolinas—to the Novato facility Earth Care, which is operated by Waste Management. The facility, where almost 90 percent of the county’s food scraps and yard trimmings are composted, doesn’t accept bioplastics—made of material like corn or sugarcane—because they do not decompose in the same way as natural materials. Bioplastics require high heat and shredding to break down, and some contain chemicals that are known possible carcinogens or endocrine disruptors.

The county’s existing reusable food product ordinance allows bioplastics. Now, the county is proposing an amendment that would require all takeout food ware to be made of compostable natural fibers, such as bamboo. Reusable food ware and utensils would be required for indoor dining, though natural-fiber compostable straws and other food ware accessories may be made available upon request.

The amended ordinance would also place a 25-cent charge on disposable cups and require that garbage, recycling, and organics bins be placed in front and back of restaurants with graphic-rich signage. Enforcement of the updated ordinance would begin one year after its adoption, to give businesses time to recover from the pandemic and deplete existing stock.

The ordinance would surpass California’s current stance on single-use plastic. The Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act is making its way through the legislature. The bill would prohibit companies from producing single-use food ware by 2032, allowing only recyclable or compostable products.

Supervisor Rodoni said the county held off on bringing the amendment to the board earlier in the pandemic, since restaurants were struggling to stay open, let alone meet new requirements.

The availability and cost of food ware supplies are already issues for local restaurant owners. Tyrone Brendel, the owner of BoVida in Bolinas, has encountered a shortage of to-go products, especially eco-friendly ones, during the pandemic. 

All the food available at BoVida—organic salads, smoothies, paninis, acai bowls—have been offered for takeout since Mr. Brendel reopened his shop in July 2020. Mr. Brendel uses more to-go wear than he would like; the cafe uses coffee cups and straws made of eco-paper, and sometimes of corn plastic. 

“I’m all for green,” he said. Shifting away from non-compostable bioplastics is “feasible, it’ll just take some additional sourcing,” he added.

Like other food venue owners, Pump Espresso Bar owner Samantha Sachs has questions about how the amended rules will affect her business.

When Ms. Sachs opened shop, she used recyclable plastic and compostable paper cups that cost three times more than the traditional to-go cup. She was, and is, willing to pay the price to “vote with my pocketbook,” but she stopped because most of the compostable plastic and paper went to the landfill anyway.

She recently found cups, produced by Kraft, that appear to be eco-friendly but have a poly-coated lining. Everything takes research, she said. 

“It’s a complex issue because there’s a lot of parts [in any food ware item],” Ms. Sachs said. “And it should be simple. There’s this thing and we get rid of it in a responsible manner. But in order to do that, [a waste system] has to be available.” 

Though the bulk of her business comes from people grabbing food and drinks to go, Ms. Sachs recently brought back more dine-in menu items and she encourages customers to bring their own reusable cups. But with reusable food ware comes water usage, a concern for those living in West Marin in a time of drought.

“I will be stoked when there is a way to deal with these things,” she said.

 

The county will discuss the ordinance and take feedback at a virtual workshop for food vendors from 3 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 15. To learn more, visit marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/environmental-health-services/reusable-foodware-ordinance.