Berkeley’s new disposable cup law is now in effect, but here’s why you might not realize it yet

Blue Bottle has started charging 25 cents for disposable cups.
Blue Bottle has started charging 25 cents for disposable cups, in compliance with a new law in Berkeley. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Depending on where and how they order, Berkeley café goers may have noticed an increase in the cost of their drinks. Some cafés are complying with a new law requiring a 25-cent charge on all disposable cups, but many are not.

The surcharge is part of the second phase of The Single-Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance (SUDFLRO) that took effect Jan. 1. In this phase, all cafés and restaurants must charge 25 cents for disposable cups, all to go cups must be compostable, and the 25-cent charge must be visible to customers via signage, menus or receipts. The surcharge is not a city tax but a fee retained by the business owner. Customers can avoid the charge by bringing their own cup.

“I like the idea,” said Anson Abdulla, owner of People’s café at 61 Shattuck Sq. in downtown Berkeley. Abdulla had spent much of the past year focusing on transitioning to zero waste. Many of his customers already bring their own cups, and the café partners with Vessel, a city reusable cup program. He also keeps a few simple signs by the trash instructing customers on where to put their waste, and encouraging customers to end ‘wish cycling’ – disposing of waste in whichever bin and expecting someone else to correctly sort it.

Abdulla had already charged separately for to-go containers, but now he folds the 25-cent charge into all drinks ordered on the go. “I was just waiting till this year to raise prices,” he said. Customers can still bring their own cup and have the fee waived, however.


Anson Abdulla, owner of People's Café in downtown Berkeley. People's Café offers reusable Vessel cups for customers who do not bring their own cups.
Anson Abdulla, owner of People’s Café in downtown Berkeley. People’s Café offers reusable Vessel cups for customers who do not bring their own cups. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Customer response has been generally positive. “A few customers have asked [about the price increase], a few seemed surprised, but people still buy,” said Abdulla.

Across the street, Blue Bottle at 2118 University Ave. announced the charge on the bottom right corner of its wall-mounted menu. The plan is largely in accord with CEO Bryan Meehan’s announcement to transition all of its US cafés to zero waste by the end of 2020.

Blue Bottle confirmed that customers are charged 25 cents for a paper cup, but that customers who bring their own cup are not charged the fee and are also given a 25-cent discount on top. This means the price of a drip coffee can range from $3.75 to $3.25 depending on whether the customer brought their own cup.

“I just try to save paper,” said Shin My, a Blue Bottle regular who brings his own cup to the café. For him, it’s more about comfort than altruism or savings, he said. “It’s just nice to have your own cup.”

Blue Bottle regular Shin My brings his own cup to the Berkeley café, which gives a 25-cent discount to customers who bring their own cup.
Blue Bottle regular Shin My brings his own cup to the Berkeley café, which gives a 25-cent discount to customers who bring their own cup. Photo: Cirrus Wood

The McDonald’s at 1998 Shattuck Ave. complies with the law and offers a comprehensive public notice. A posting by the register articulates customer impact and exemptions for patrons that benefit from state welfare programs.

Though the 25-cent charge took effect at the start of the year, the city will not take steps towards enforcement until Jan. 1, 2021. Businesses that struggle with compliance can apply for waivers, mini-grants and technical assistance.

The phasing and the delayed enforcement are deliberate features of the new law are meant to ease the city towards zero waste in a spirit of partnership, rather than penalty, according to the bill’s author, Berkeley City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn. The bill is a way for residents, businesses and the city “to together make an important and necessary transition for our entire community and for the planet,” she said.

“The phasing and the delayed enforcement are all about partnership, giving [the city] time to help any businesses that have trouble making the transition, giving us time to work out any individual or specific challenges that vendors may be having, and providing technical assistance,” she said. “This ordinance is not just a law that got slapped down.”

A sign posted near the register at McDonald's in downtown Berkeley explains the new city ordinance.
A sign posted near the register at McDonald’s in downtown Berkeley explains the new disposable foodware ordinance. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Still, it’s up to each business to determine how to comply with the law in a way and on a timeline that works for them. Days after the law went into effect, we found that many businesses have not made any changes. In North Berkeley, Guerrilla café (1620 Shattuck Ave.) nor its neighbor Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (1600 Shattuck Ave.) presently charge customers for to-go cups. In the case of Wrecking Ball, takeout is even the less expensive option. (A 12-oz house-brewed coffee costs $3.28 when ordered for in-house, but a flat $3 to go.)

Asha Teahouse at 2086 University Ave. is not currently in compliance with the new law. The business does not charge 25 cents for to-go containers, nor do they conform to the mandate that all disposable containers be compostable. It’s not for lack of trying though. The spike in demand for compostable plastics has led to a global shortage of PLA — polyactic acid — a plant-derived, biodegradable plastic filament. Asha hopes to be in full compliance by the summer. In the meantime, they use recyclable plastic cold cups and compostable paper hot cups for beverages.

“I like that we’re going the compostable route,” said shift supervisor Anne Pham, even if it is taking longer than expected. “I’m from SoCal, and you don’t see this same level of concern there.”