I love bringing my reusable mug to coffee shops. It helps cut down on disposable cup waste, occasionally gets me a discount, and always makes me feel like I’m getting approximately 10 karma points. But occasionally coffee shops will say they’re not allowed to accept reusable cups for health code reasons.
From this week on, that won’t be a problem — at least in California (h/t Nation’s Restaurant News). On July 12, the California governor signed into law the Assembly Bill 619 to establish best practices for foodservice establishments dealing with reusable food and beverage containers. Previous California law simply stated that restaurant staff could refill reusable containers if “the dispensing system includes a contamination-free transfer process,” but didn’t specify what that process would look like. The new law provides more details.
This bill would instead provide that clean consumer-owned containers provided or returned to the food facility for filling may be filled by either the employee or the owner of the container, and would require the food facility to isolate the consumer-owned containers from the serving surface or sanitize the serving surface after each filling. The bill would require the consumer-owned containers to be designed and constructed for reuse, as specified. The bill would require the food facility to prepare, maintain, and adhere to written procedures to prevent cross-contamination, and to make the written procedures available to the enforcement agency.
Now approved, the new law stipulates that restaurants can’t put consumers’ reusable containers down on the serving surface, or that they must sanitize the surface each time after filling a reusable container. Foodservice spots must also write a policy for the prevention of cross-contamination which they can show to inspectors. Additionally, the law allows the use of reusable containers at “temporary food facilities” like events or outdoor festivals, which were previously required to use disposables, as long as they are cleaned on-site.
Reusable containers could help significantly cut down on packaging waste. Thanks to the rise of on-demand culture, we dispose of an astounding number of single-use cups, utensils, and food containers. According to the EPA, containers and packaging alone contribute over 23 percent of landfill material in the U.S. Compostable containers, while certainly preferable to the pure evil of styrofoam, still release methane when they decompose.
On the foodservice side, establishments large and small are beginning to experiment with reusable containers. The Loop sells brand-name CPG products from Pepsi and Nestlé in reusable vessels made of metal and glass. Yum China is experimenting with reusable fried chicken baskets at KFC’s in China. Starbucks recently trialed a reusable cup program at Gatwick airport, and, on a smaller scale, Vessel Works and Cup Club also have rent-and-return programs for reusable coffee cups.
Bill 619 was just signed into law this week, so it’s too soon to tell if it will actually increase usage of reusable containers and cups. Since California already has a reputation of being pretty eco-friendly, I’m not sure if it will actually inspire much of a change in day-to-day consumer behavior.
Sure, the fact that the law requires companies to sanitize food surfaces touched by reusable containers might assuage fears of germaphobe customers. But it also helps eco-conscious consumers who can point to the bill if a restaurant or coffee shop ever refuses to take their reusable container. However, the extra sanitizing could also end up being a pain in the a$$ for foodservice workers, especially in the middle of a crazy lunch rush. In fact, the success of the bill may well come down to how well restaurants can manage the sanitation rules during busy times, especially if more and more people start bringing in reusable containers.
One thing is for sure: Bill 619 starts a conversation around ways we can cut down on the obscene numbers of single-use containers and cups thrown into oceans and landfills each year. Hopefully soon it’ll become the norm coffee shops to get told off for not bringing your reusable mug.