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Single-Use Plastics

Single-Use Plastics Policy

Per the University of California's Sustainable Practices Policy, UC Davis is embarking on a transformative journey to phase out the purchase and use of single-use plastics from our food service establishments and replace them with reusable or locally compostable alternatives. 

Key provisions of the University of California's Sustainable Practices Policy regarding single-use plastics include:

  • Prohibiting of plastic bag distribution in campus retail and foodservice establishments by  Jan. 1, 2021 (Completed)
  • Replacement of disposable single-use plastic foodware items and accessories with reusables or locally compostable alternatives by July 1, 2024. (In progress)
  • Providing reusable foodware options for food consumed on-site by July 1, 2024.  (In progress)

The policy aligns with the UC Davis' zero waste goals and reflects a global recognition of the environmental crisis posed by single-use plastics. UC Davis is not only embracing sustainability within its own operations but also advocating for systemic change in how products are sourced, used, and disposed of across its campus community.

While our campus has a long way to go to meet these goals, UC Davis Sustainability is committed to working with campus partners to help implement the policy. For more information, browse single-use plastic FAQs below and download the recently revised University of California’s Sustainable Practices Policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does the Single-Use Plastics Policy exist and what does it aim to do?
  • The Single-Use Plastics Policy exists to guide the University locations through a significant shift away from a culture of disposables and towards that of reusables and waste reduction. In recognition of the severe environmental impacts that single-use plastic products have globally, the UC system is seeking to move away from using these products entirely. The Policy encourages locations to defer to the waste hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle) and pursue opportunities to create a more robust reusables culture wherever possible. 
  • Why does this Policy target plastics versus other single-use materials such as aluminum or glass? 
  • Single-use materials, including aluminum and glass, have their own unique environmental impact trade-offs (or pros and cons) during their production, use, and disposal phases. For example, the mining of bauxite to create aluminum causes land degradation and habitat loss and the transportation of glass requires a lot of energy resulting in climate impacts. However, there are significant physical and chemical threats at end-of-life stages for plastics due to the low recycling rate and the petrochemical composition of this material, whereas aluminum and glass are easier to recycle and not made from fossil fuels. 

    Plastics contribute greatly to littering in marine and terrestrial environments, and as plastics degrade, microscopic plastics end up in the environment and eventually in food and water to be ingested. Microscopic plastics also accumulate chemicals known to have human health impacts. For these reasons, it is more pressing to reduce reliance on plastics as opposed to other single-use alternatives. That being said, reusable items should be prioritized over single-use items of any material when feasible. For more information about life cycle impacts of single-use plastic bottles and alternatives, see the UNEP Report
  • What is the waste hierarchy and how is it related to this Policy? 
  • The waste hierarchy is a set of priorities that guides the efficient use of resources. Sometimes referred to as the “Zero Waste hierarchy of highest and best use”, and often depicted by the chart seen here, the waste hierarchy underpins the Single-Use Plastics Policy. Based on the hierarchy, the first step to achieving the zero waste goals of the Policy is reducing any unnecessary purchases and only providing what is needed. The next best thing is purchasing reusables that can be shipped in bulk and utilized many times. If single-use products are necessary, locally compostable or non-plastic items are the only acceptable options. The goal is to avoid plastics that are neither reusable nor infinitely recyclable and eventually end up as unacceptable waste that has no beneficial use. 
  • What are the benefits of switching to reusables?
  • Reusables are the best option because they use the least amount of resources and cause the least damage to the environment and our health. You can think about your daily coffee: the manufacture and transport of a reusable coffee mug which allows a person to utilize the cup many times, while using a small amount of water to rinse in between uses, is a fairly efficient use of resources. In comparison, the manufacture and transport of a plastic cup, which allows a person to use it only once, includes throwing the cup in a landfill bin and paying a staff person to collect the trash, put it in a truck, transport it to the landfill, pay a tipping fee, and bury it in the ground/landfill where it pollutes the water, air, and soil. Not only do single-use plastics spend more resources, but those resources are spent daily compared to only once every few years with a reusable cup. In the long term, reusables cost less and prevent excessive environmental and health degradation.
  • What are ways to transition to using reusables instead of single-use plastics?
  • There are many options for transitioning to reusables.  Here are some suggestions to consider:
    • Foodservice Facilities:
      Offer incentives for bringing reusables such as rewards programs or discounts

      • Charge an additional cost for providing disposables

      • Offer dine-in reusable options such as cups for coffee houses or dishware for quick service restaurants

    • • Implement a reusable food packaging program

      • Switch to fountain drink service

    • Events/Catering: 
    • Establish and enforce Zero Waste/Green Events across campus.  Below are examples:
    • • Require events that are over a certain number of attendees and serving food to have catering services with reusable wares

      • Establish a reusable rental service for events that are below a certain number of attendees and serving food

      • Discontinue distribution of single-use beverage containers and serve drinks with dispensing stations

      • Encourage attendees to bring their own reusables prior to the event

    • Office/Meetings:

      • Encourage attendees to bring their own reusables prior to the gathering

      • Establish a shared reusable resource such as mugs, plates, and cutlery and a protocol for washing reusable wares to ensure sanitation

      • Identify water filling stations and encourage reusable water bottles

      • Provide resources and/or workshops

  • Are PLA/bioplastics a good compostable alternative to single-use plastics?
  • In general, reusability is prioritized over compostability, so any opportunity to implement a reusable product program is preferable to purchasing PLA/bioplastics, as the compostability of these materials is largely dependent on the process of each composting facility. If you do choose to implement PLA/bioplastics, first check to make sure that the compost facility that services your location is able to fully process and break down PLA/bioplastics. #7 PLA products generally take 60-90 days to break down in an industrial compost facility, so you must ensure that your compost facility can accommodate that breakdown time. As a reference, you can review this letter from Athens Services discussing why bioplastics are often not a good option for composters.
  • What should I do if local composting facilities are limited in what they accept or if there are no accessible composting facilities in the area? 
  • Refer to GreenBlue’s tool for Mapping Composting Infrastructure and Supporting Legislation to find nearby composting facilities and learn about which materials/products they accept. If there are no opportunities for contracting with any local composting facilities, prioritize the implementation of reusable products. Encourage bring-your-own reusables within the community to reduce overall purchase and distribution of single-use plastics. If local composting facilities do not accept any fiber products, it is still better to send compostables to the landfill than to send plastics products to landfill.  It is better to avoid petroleum/oil-based materials (plastic) and opt for materials originating from renewable resources instead. 
  • What should I do if there are no alternatives to single-use plastic for a commodity? 
  • If there are no available alternatives, single-use plastics may be used upon review through an exemption process. Exceptions are determined by local implementation procedures and will vary from location to location. This includes situations in which your local vendor or bottler is unable to transition to a plastic bottle alternative.

    If glass and metal containers are not allowed for health and safety reasons, campuses should consider the following options, listed in order of priority:

    Reusable plastic cups that can be sanitized and reused by the facility

    A “bring your own” option in which attendees are encouraged to bring their own containers and the facility will provide refill options

    Local compostable single-use cups, such as fiber-based paper cups

  • What should I do if I have an existing stock of single-use plastics? 
  • If you have an existing stock of single-use plastics, you should aim to find a use for these single-use plastics rather than disposing of them. Depending on the volume, this may include using them in your operations until they are depleted. They could also be donated to another entity that can benefit from these products (e.g. campus food closet). The goal is to not purchase any additional single-use plastics.
  • How does the Single-Use Plastics Policy apply to purchases made by faculty, staff, or student groups? 
  • University affiliated individuals and groups are responsible for complying with this Policy as it applies to their activities on University property such as offices, events, meetings, and conferences. The general rule of thumb is that if you are purchasing products using funds through the University (directly or through reimbursement), the products should comply with the Policy.

    Consult with your campus dining or foodservice teams to utilize group purchasing from suppliers. Compostable products are likely being purchased by foodservice departments and these departments can source products for lower costs.

  • Does the Single-Use Plastics Policy apply to community members who purchase items off site and dispose of them on site?
  • While it is encouraged to consider using reusables and locally compostable products over single-use plastics, the Policy has a limited scope of control. This Policy does not intend to govern individuals or visitor actions as much as it seeks to help locations create more sustainable systems that allow individuals to make better choices; the scope and application is defined by the individual locations through local implementation procedure. 
  • How does this Policy apply to pre-packaged foods?
  • When selecting foods that are prepared and packaged by a third-party vendor off premises for resale in vending machines or stores on University property (e.g. packaged sandwiches or salads resold in campus stores, individually packaged pastries, etc.), when possible select products that have locally compostable or locally recyclable packaging options. Beverages that come in aluminum, glass, or locally compostable paper packaging should be prioritized. 
  • Is 100% recycled plastic acceptable under this Policy?
  • 100% recycled plastic or plastics with any amount of recycled content are still single-use plastics and will not be accepted as outlined in the Single-Use Plastics Policy. Plastic degrades in quality as it is recycled until it cannot be used anymore and becomes landfill waste. Though recycled plastic aims to extend the lifetime of plastics and meet the minimum recycled content requirements in State Assembly Bill AB793, it should not be the end solution, but rather a bridge to use existing resources for as long as possible. This Policy aims to reduce the presence and eliminate single-use plastics through the use of materials that can be infinitely recycled without diminishing quality.
  • Can single-use plastics be used in extenuating circumstances?
  • In the event of a natural disaster, global pandemic, or any significant crisis, single-use plastics may be used, if necessary, to ensure the health and safety of the community. In these circumstances, guidance will be provided by individual locations as to when single-use plastics will be allowed. Refer to your location’s local implementation procedures and exemptions.
  • What areas of waste and environmental degradation does this Policy directly address?
  • This policy aims to eliminate single-use plastic in its various forms within every product sector. Though other forms of waste are considered when suggesting alternative products and programming (i.e. water waste, food waste, and energy consumption), our main goal is to eliminate single-use plastics, as they make up a disproportionately large portion of university-wide waste. The UC Policy on Sustainable Practices establishes goals for sustainability in eleven areas. Please refer to this policy for more information on how to address non-plastic waste sources at UC.
  • How does this Policy relate to health and wellness? 
  • As this Policy addresses single-use plastics in foodservice and most specifically bottled beverages, there is overlap with health and wellness. This Policy covers all single-use bottled beverages, rather than only targeting bottled water, so as not to incentivize a switch to less healthy alternatives. It also asks locations to consider installing additional hydration stations to promote reusable bottles and healthy beverages. The newly established Health and Well-being section of the UC Policy on Sustainable Practices also addresses the intersection between health and sustainability with language about healthy vending and chemicals of concern. The Health and Wellbeing working group will begin their work by developing criteria for healthy vending options and addressing chemicals of concern within sustainable procurement guidelines. 
  • Are there examples of draft language for beverage and pouring rights contracts?
  • Yes, find draft language drafted by UC Santa Cruz here
  • What will Policy compliance look like? 
  • UC locations will be asked to report their progress in implementing the single use plastics policy to the systemwide Zero Waste Working Group, which is in turn, charged with reporting to the Sustainability Steering Committee on progress and issues surrounding the implementation of the Sustainable Practices Policy. CalRecycle, California’s governing agency on recycling and waste management programs, will also be enforcing SB1335 - Sustainable Packaging for the State of California Act of 2018. Under SB1335, food service facilities located in a state-owned facility, operating on or acting as a concessionaire on state property, or under contract to provide food service to a state agency are required to use food service packaging that are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.  Examples of food service facilities include but are not limited to food trucks at UC campuses, catering companies that serve at University events, and food service contractors in dining halls or cafeterias. 

    Locations are tasked with creating a local procedure for implementing the single-use plastics policy provisions. These procedures should be developed in coordination with key campus stakeholders, such as sustainability, procurement, dining, athletics, event services, and other departments that operate foodservice facilities.  This implementation procedure should include a process for requesting exemptions when reasonable alternatives to single use plastics do not exist. Additionally, local procedures should include a process for notifying appropriate local staff of policy violations, tracking those violations, and a process for responding to violations. Ideally the response to violations contain a number of steps, starting with education and outreach before escalating, as appropriate.  Similarly,  new contracts, or extensions and renegotiations, should clearly outline the expectation for avoiding single-use plastics that will be addressed through normal contract compliance mechanisms. 

  • What are the cost considerations for Policy implementation? 
  • Locations are encouraged to look holistically at the cost of implementing this policy. Although there could be costs associated with implementing this Policy, there can also be cost savings, including not purchasing items that are given away for free (bags & straws), switching to reusables, and reducing waste, all of which minimize waste hauling fees. These cost considerations help internalize full lifecycle costs of the items used. Additionally, this Policy aligns with State and local best practices to help drive market change that will help decrease the cost of alternatives over time. 
  • If a customer dines-in, but does not finish their food, what containers do campuses provide?
  • Campus can distribute disposable compostable containers in this situation.
  • How will AB1276 impact or affect the UC Single-Use Plastics Policy?
  • The purpose of AB 1276 is to prohibit food facilities from providing single-use plastic, unless the customer specifically requests it. AB 1276 further lists the consequences of violation to include monetary penalties, but the punishable infractions that result in violations will not exceed an annual total of $300.

    Under AB1276, the University is not required to completely prohibit single-use plastic foodware accessories and condiments. However, the UC Policy takes precedence over AB1276, and will not have any impact over existing efforts to ban and replace single-use plastic wares.