'It's a good start': Berkeley takes the lead in charging fee for single use cups

A cup of coffee will soon cost a little bit more in one California city with a history of starting environmental trends. Beginning Jan. 1, businesses in Berkeley must include a charge of an extra 25 cents US for every to-go coffee cup — part of a growing worldwide movement against single-use items. 

To-go could one day be gone: As Berkeley, Calif., charges for cups so too could Canadian cities

One day, single use cups might be a thing of the past. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

A cup of coffee will soon cost a little bit more in one California city with a history of starting environmental trends.

Beginning Jan. 1, businesses in Berkeley must include a charge of an extra 25 cents US for every to-go coffee cup — part of a growing worldwide movement against single-use items. 

"We're trying to change the whole culture around takeout in Berkeley and just go back maybe 20, 25 years when we didn't have all this throwaway stuff, and somehow we were still able to eat and drink and go about our daily business," said Berkeley Coun. Sophie Hahn, who authored the city ordinance. 

According to the City of Berkeley, residents toss out about 40 million cups each year and Hahn insists people should think of the fee as a carrot, not a stick. 

"By showing people that there is a cost to the throwaway foodware, studies have shown that we can incentivize people effectively to bring their own," Hahn said.

Berkeley Coun. Sophie Hahn wrote the municipal ordinance that will require businesses in the city to charge 25 cents US for every to-go coffee cup beginning Jan. 1. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

So why should Canadians care about a municipal ordinance in an American city? Look no further than plastic shopping bags. Cities in the San Francisco Bay Area were the first to charge customers for them, then ban them altogether. It's just one of many environmental trends that started there and is now common in Canada. The same, Hahn said, could happen with coffee cups.

We have a history of activism. We have a history of being first with innovative things.- Sophie Hahn, Berkeley City Council member

"We have a history of activism. We have a history of being first with innovative things," Hahn said. "Within days of the ordinance having been passed, we learned of other jurisdictions that were introducing either similar and in some cases identical legislation." 

For instance, starting next summer the coastal county of Santa Cruz southwest of San Jose, Calif., will require businesses to charge 25 cents for all single-use cups. And the City of Toronto is also contemplating whether to impose fees on single-use takeaway containers like coffee cups. 

Two recent surveys of Berkeley and San Francisco residents suggest the measures might enjoy significant popular support. The surveys found that 70 per cent of businesses and 77 per cent of residents supported a charge for disposable cups, and 37 per cent felt that a discount of 25 cents would motivate them to bring their own cups.  

These reusable cups one can be purchased cheaply, then returned for a refund. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

'To go more green'

As a university student, Gia Jones says she doesn't have much extra money for her coffee habit. The fee, she says, will force her to think more about sustainability. 

"I think it's a good start to try to, like, push people to go more green or go reusable," says Jones, who uses reusable mugs.

But often Jones doesn't actually bring her own mug. Instead, she relies on Vessel, a startup that offers a reusable cups service to businesses.

"They provide them here when you buy the coffee," says Jones.

The service allows users to check out a cup and return it, much like a book at a library. 

After finishing her latte at Caffè Strada, she takes her metal container and places it in a Vessel receptacle. If it's not returned, Vessel charges $15 for the cup.

A receptacle for Vessel reusable cups in Oakland, Calif. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Even though most other Bay Area cities aren't yet charging for to-go cups like Berkeley, there is a growing move to encourage businesses to offer more affordable alternatives.

"If you think of the major brands on the market, it's like $30 to $40 for a reusable mug," says environmental activist Vanessa Pope. "We saw that as a barrier to entry in sustainability for folks."

Pope co-founded For Here, Please — a non-profit organization that helps cafes and restaurants reduce single-use items.

She holds up a reusable glass jar offered for sale at one such cafe for $2 or $3 US depending on the size.

For Here Please co-founder Vanessa Pope, checking on the progress of an Oakland coffee shop that started offering glass reusable containers. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Sometimes it's simply a space thing. And so we just come in, and we help them rethink their shelving. Sometimes, it's a cost issue. Sometimes, it's logistics. And sometimes, it's simply, 'I'm not ready to do that. I don't want to inconvenience my customers.'"

Some coffee shops in Oakland, Calif., are offering customers drinks in reusable glass containers. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Recently Pope visited Burlap Coffee in Oakland, Calif. The shop has taken an important first step: it's now selling glass jars as an alternative to paper cups. 

"So how do you feel about getting rid of all the disposables?" Pope asks Kelly Lyons, who's working the cash register. 

"I think [it] would be amazing if we can pull it off," Lyons says. But he admits the transition is slow going.

"It's the first day, so we haven't really started to integrate it into our habits," Lyons says. 

Still, it's an important first step, Pope says. She's hoping to eventually convince the neighbourhood to get rid of single-use items by 2021. However, it requires a shift away from the "to-go culture."

"I think we're now coming into a new age where we do think about what happens to something that we use only for 15 minutes," Pope says.

The fight against to-go coffee cups is part of a larger war on single-use items, such as takeaway containers. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Another cafe in Oakland has gone a step further. No one's drinking out of to-go cups because there aren't any at Perch Coffee. Owner Kedar Korde said he grew dismayed when he saw a flotilla of his shop's cups bobbing in the currents of nearby Lake Merritt. 

"We had a problem reconciling the moral math of having paper cups that were going to trash our lake, trash the neighbourhoods for transactions that were two minutes and $3," Korde says.

Perch is an outlier, but also possibly an early adopter. This month, the coffee chain Blue Bottle with more than 70 stores in the U.S. and Japan announced it will phase out to-go cups by the end of 2020.

Bay Area coffee shops charge for disposable cups

The National

1 year ago
Coffee shops in Berkeley, Calif., have started charging patrons 25 cents for disposable coffee cups in part of worldwide push against single use items. The move is being contemplated by Canadian cities, including Toronto. 1:47

In his announcement, Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan acknowledged that it's an "experiment that may not work, that may cost us money and that may make your life a little more complicated." 

But Meehan said it's worth the risk because the chain goes through 12 million cups each year.

So, savour that paper cup while you can. Hopefully, one day, Pope says, to-go cups will be gone, along with the whole disposable culture of single-use, containers. 

"We're hoping that that will kind of be a stepping stone to other aspects of a person's life: we can start to talk to people about how they can make small changes in their life to have a big effect," she says. "It all starts with a cup of coffee."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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