New local initiatives encourage sustainability

The+boxes+used+for+prepared+food+at+Whole+Foods+are+made+of+compostable+materials.

Clementine Cunningham

The boxes used for prepared food at Whole Foods are made of compostable materials.

Of the 300 million tons of plastic waste produced each year, only 9% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed many bills that aim to reduce plastic use. According to CA.gov, Newsom has dedicated $270 million from his $15 billion climate package to promote sustainability in California, going towards new laws like Assembly Bill No. 881 which encourages exporting recyclable plastics in the place of non-recyclable waste to meet state-wide sustainability goals.

Kamille Lang, a specialist at the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, thinks these laws will benefit San Mateo County residents and the ecosystems throughout. 

“These laws revolve around understanding the gaps in our current waste systems and establishing more means of accountability throughout the system to reduce waste that ends up in the landfill,” Lang said.

The laws include guidelines about single-use plasticware: restaurants and school food services are no longer permitted to provide plastic straws or plasticware unless specifically requested by a customer (Assembly Bill No. 1276)

“This process is referred to as the Circular Economy. We will see California work towards production and consumption that reuses and extends the life of materials in a way that creates a closed-loop system,” Lang said.

San Mateo County has initiatives that are unique to the county in order to reduce waste. The Foodware Aware program, which will come into effect in Belmont on March 25, 2022, focuses on reducing disposable foodware made of plastic.

“These policies encourage a shift to reusable food service ware. School programs will be impacted and will need to change single-use food ware currently being used in most schools,” Lang said. 

Grocery stores like Whole Foods have also been encouraging sustainable practices. Tony Gudino, a supervisor at Whole Foods, says they are providing compostable foodware to customers who order prepared foods in efforts to reduce plastic waste.

“Our spoons and other utensils are 100% biodegradable and are actually made out of potato fibers,” said Gudino.

Some stores have gravity bin stations similar to the Whole Foods bins. Instead of purchasing a packaged amount of food, the items are in a large bin or cylinder that customers can fill their own containers with. They’re filled with items like flour, rice, nuts, and candy, and customers can choose the amount they want while encouraging them to reduce their single-plastic consumption. 

Unfortunately, not many people bring their own glassware. We only have about three people bringing them a day. Otherwise, most people use the plastic bags we provide instead.”

— Tony Gudino

“We recently reinstalled our gravity bins which allow people to buy in bulk. We had to shut them down during COVID-19. Unfortunately, not many people bring their own glassware. We only have about three people bringing them a day. Otherwise, most people use the plastic bags we provide instead,” Gudino said.

Beyond plastic waste, grocery stores are also reducing their overall food waste. A new bill, California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy, mandates that grocery stores donate their unsold products to food recovery organizations.

“We are now donating all our leftover food to the Samaritan House. They use it to make meals for people that are in need of food,” said Mary Stanton, an employee at Mollie Stone’s supermarket. 

 Food suppliers are also minimizing the plastic packing on their food items. Staton has seen an increase in recyclable packaging at Mollie Stone’s.

“We get more cardboard boxes now, but before [all food items] were wrapped in plastic. Our sodas and beverage products now come in crates that are reusable,” Stanton said. 

Food packaging is not the only plastic that goes to waste, Lang recommends taking a carbon footprint test online to calculate the impact one’s consumption has on the environment. The test measures various factors which help determine what everyday changes someone could make to become more sustainable.

“I recently took a closer look at the items I usually use in my bathroom. The products I used came in so much packaging that I started going online to look for alternative resources. It takes time and effort, but it is always worth it when you think about the positive impact it has on the planet,” Lang said. 

Recology San Mateo County, a waste management company, advocates for ecological practices and recycling. According to Heather Rockwood, a waste zero specialist at Recology, the company hopes to inspire residents to inform themselves about laws that can influence the natural environment around them. 

“We are fortunate to have leadership that is committed and earnestly working towards a world with no waste. Though Mike Sangiacomo is now retired, he was our CEO previously, and he really set the stage for advocating a future with less dependence on plastic,” Rockwood said. 

Recology also encourages the community to support laws that will benefit the environment. 

“We have used our collective voice to help get more signatures for the plastic-free ballot. We’ve also taken time to write to our Senators and Representatives to ensure our voice is heard in the plastic conversations ahead,” Rockwood said.