Helen Yip is an undergraduate student studying Society & Environment at UC Berkeley.
Recently, Berkeley City Council has unanimously passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance to attack the use of disposable plastics. This ambitious piece of legislation would ban restaurants from using disposable food and beverage containers for on-site dining, charge a tax of 25 cents for the request of disposable cups, require all take-out containers to be compostable, and specifying that straws are handed out only on a request-based status. Once again, Berkeley is spearheading progressive environmental legislation but things look very different in Southern California. Just a hop, skip and a jump away and consumers might find themselves not only discouraged to use their own cups but also prohibited from doing so.
In a recent visit back to my hometown in Los Angeles, I discovered an unsettling pattern on plastic waste consumption. However, to understand how drastic the situation is, one must understand the culture of the San Gabriel Valley and a delicious drink that’s almost as addictive as Starbucks: boba tea. Boba (also called bubbles or pearls) refers to chewy tapioca balls put in a variety of drinks such as milk teas, fruit teas or slushies. They are a staple in Asian communities and tea shops that sell these drinks always rack up huge sales. One negative side of the delicious delicacy is that they are almost always served in disposal plastics from the cups to the lids to the straws (and straw packaging). One can drink the tea in the cafe, never taking it outside, and it would still be served in single-use plastics.
After learning more about the devastating effects of plastic waste and having a desire to change my consumer habits little by little, I have tried my best to only use my reusable cups when buying drinks. When I arrived at my favorite boba shop, I requested my normal drink and handed the barista my 16-ounce reusable mason jar. I’ve done this in numerous shops around Berkeley in Northern California and had no problem getting my drink but at this Southern California location, I was rejected. The barista said it was against their health code to bring my cup to the back but she would be happy to make my drink in a plastic cup then pour it into my mason jar. It’s safe to say she kind of missed the point.
I was flabbergasted in a variety of ways, but more importantly, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t have a choice as a consumer. The daunting statistics of plastic waste is out there: in 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than there will be fish. Even efforts to recycle aren’t enough to control the waste situation since only 9% of the world’s plastics actually gets recycled. While I understand part of the problem is systematic and lies in industry, I also follow the zero-waste trends and is aware of actions I can take as an individual to avoid plastics. It’s hard enough to go the extra mile to make personal choices that might not be the most convenient for you but now you have to face a system that is actively against you? That is unacceptable.
It is a time for the rest of California to catch on and implement a policy similar to that of Berkeley on a state-wide level. The era of single-use plastics is coming to an end and consumers are no longer complacent with silently accepting plastics into their lives. The responsibility of making our planet sustainable shouldn’t solely fall on the consumer, it should be a cooperation along with industry and the government. If individual corporations won’t provide consumers with the rights to choose, then the government should be called upon to intervene. It’s time we all fought for our right to bring our own cup if we choose to.