California is one of the states leading the efforts to combat material resource loss to landfill, and environmental plastic pollution with plastic bag and straw bans, food waste to organics recycling, biogas infrastructure incentives, and more. But the focus hasn’t been on reuse until now.
Assembly Bill No. 619, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on July 12, takes the first steps towards introducing California residents to a new way of consuming on the go. Launching January 2020, AB 619 permits food vendors at concerts, fairs, and festivals to serve food in reusable containers.
Due to health and safety concerns, temporary public functions have been required to serve food and beverages on single-use dishes and in disposable cups. The bill’s author, Assembly member David Chiu, framed the issue differently: “Having fun at a concert or festival does not have to result in a sea of trash.”
We spoke with Severiano Christian, the staffer in Chiu’s office who was charged with shepherding AB 619 through the legislative process this year. He worked with sponsors (primarily the Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition), prepped Chiu for fiscal and policy committees, and liaised between Chiu and those who had concerns about the bill.
“This is something that the bill sponsors had said was a long time coming. They approached us around October/November of last year, and we really started researching it and trying to do a deep dive into it,” Christian said.
Christian started the conversation with the state’s restaurant association, the environmental health community, and the California retail food safety coalition. “We crowdsourced all this information and turned it into two different provisions that work well for everybody involved,” Christian said. “Then we just had to move it from Assembly over to the Senate.”
The other provision outlined in AB 619 clarifies an existing law that allows people to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants for take-out.
“The statute was written in a very unclear and archaic way. So when people were going to restaurant staff and asking, ‘Will you please accept my reusable container?’ most didn’t feel comfortable because of the health safety code. And so they oftentimes chose not to do it,” Christian said. (*This, we can attest to!)
“It’s still not a mandate,” he added. “If a restaurant staff person doesn’t feel comfortable accepting a reusable container, they absolutely don’t have to.”
“It’s also written within the law that we just passed that the container has to be constructed for reuse. There are actually very specific qualifications for those types of containers that are modeled off of the federal food code: it has to be durable and it has to be able to withstand heat and sanitation.”
One of the main issues that Chiu’s team came across was perceived health and safety concerns. “We took really extensive efforts to mitigate these,” Christian said.
“This whole issue of it not being sanitary can be addressed by bringing awareness to the actual ins and outs of the policy. There are green restaurant coalitions [like the Surfrider Foundation’s network] that are very interested in this idea, and I’m hoping that will start publishing more documents and more campaigns about how to do this safely.”
Ultimately, the goal is for AB 619 to begin broader conversations and actions around sustainability.
“The hope that we create a paradigm shift in what is actually possible and what we’ve just been doing out of convenience.”
“It’s the sponsor’s hope and it’s the Assembly members’ hope that with the passage of this will come more awareness about the ability to use reusables, not only at temporary food facilities like concerts, fairs, and whatnot, but also at restaurants,” Christian explained.
“Though it’s great to think about recycling and composting, sometimes certain jurisdictions don’t have the capabilities for those processes. At the end of the day, it’s just better to reduce our waste entirely, and to not create waste to begin with.”
Next steps? Bring your own Containers and Cups to your favorite establishments and help them learn and adapt — it can take several attempts, but new habits, though hard won, are also infectious in the best way. Restaurants save money on packaging, retain your business, and everyone feels good about reducing unnecessary waste.
Below are some initiatives around the world that inspire us towards reducing our use of single-use plastic by REUSING!:
GO Box offers subscription services where customers can pick up reusables from participating food establishments in Portland and leave them at a nearby drop-site for the GO Box team to collect and sanitize for reuse.
In India, tiffin lunchboxes are delivered to busy office workers every day. The meals, also called dabbas, come in circular metal tins with two to four layers for individual dishes—and they’re reused again and again. Dabbas account for about 80 million lunches a year. And every day, about 5,000 dabbawalas deliver them.
As reported in The Independent, “So efficient is the system that the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen’s Association claims that dabbawalas only make a mistake once in every six millions deliveries, translating to about one going missing every other month. It works so well that it has been studied by Harvard Business School and is reportedly the envy of FedEx.”
Marks & Spencer’s Discount Program
This summer, Marks & Spencer launched a discount program, where customers are given 25 pence off each prepared foods meal they buy if they bring their own reusable container. Other UK-based grocers, like Sainsbury’s, allow reusable containers, but this is one of the first to offer discounts in exchange. And Waitrose in Oxford, is allowing customers to bring their own containers for pasta, wine, and frozen fruit, removing packaging on over 200 of its products.