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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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You Are What You Eat (With…): A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of Plastic Foodware

29 Jul 2020 9:12 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  European traveling eating set (circa 1780)  
  This plastic picnic tray was created by a French designer in 1977. The picnicking individual breaks off the utensils and cup for use and throws it all away when finished.  


For most of human history Europeans got along perfectly well without any cutlery other than a knife. In medieval times, a stale piece of bread called a trencher served as a plate. When forks were introduced around 1100, clerics apparently protested, arguing that they were disrespectful to God, who had given us fingers for the purpose of eating. Throughout the Renaissance, forks continued to be viewed as something that only a sinner or a weakling would use.

Forks finally met with acceptance in the 1700s after someone added two extra tines to the original two-tined model, making them much more efficient. Even so, they were not commonplace in homes or inns for several centuries, and many elites traveled with their own personal dining implements.

How did we get from inlaid mother-of-pearl to plastic? The plastic utensil market exploded after the plastic spork was patented by an American company in 1970. Some scholars have suggested that we should blame the French for how things unfolded during that decade. They point to the French love of a picnic for the “marriage of culture and convenience” that set the scene for the widespread manufacture of plastic utensils. One example: French food-service company, Sodexo, was prompted to “turn to plastic” in the 1970s, and became a huge multinational corporation that today buys 44 million plastic utensils per month for their clients in the US alone. However, despite being an early adopter of plastic cutlery, France was also the first country to ban plastic utensils, plates and cups. Redemption!

The San Anselmo Ordinance to Ban Single-Use Plastic Foodware

The extent of the worldwide plastics invasion over the last 50 years is hard to grasp in its entirety. Many activists, elected politicians, and ordinary citizens are increasingly alarmed by the contribution of plastic products to street litter and marine pollution, harm to wildlife, and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Placed end to end, the straws used DAILY in the US would circle the planet more than twice.  

Foodware consistently emerges as one of the major contributors to this problem. A 2011 study by the Clean Water Fund found that 67% of the litter in the SF Bay is from food (48%) and beverage (19%) packaging.

These concerns prompted a group of San Anselmo citizens to promote a local initiative reducing the use and disposal of single-use foodware, including cups, lids, utensils, straws, clamshells, and other plastic products. Originally adopted by the Town Council at the end of 2018, the ordinance was revised and approved in June of 2019, and went into effect in January of 2020.


San Anselmo


What is Banned by the Ban?

Here are four key elements of the San Anselmo ordinance:

  • For dine-in restaurants, reusable foodware is mandatory.
  • For takeout, disposable foodware (plates, bowls, utensils) must be compostable, unlined paper/fiber, or wood based. Must also be certified as biodegradable and/or free of toxic chemicals (PFAS).
  • $.25 charge for disposable cups.
  • Food vendors must provide a 3-part bin for compost, recycling and landfill.

What Were the Concerns about the Ban?

Not surprisingly, some food vendors were concerned about the cost of purchasing disposable foodware that met the new criteria. Some also worried about the cost of dishwashing, including the extra staff time and outlay for equipment.

However, analysis by ReThink Disposable suggests that the switch to reusable can be cost effective for food vendors large and small. This was true for a reusable foodware initiative in a dining hall at the University of San Francisco. Bon Appetit, the food services contractor, invested in purchasing reusable foodware for dining-in and trained staff to provide disposables only to those opting for takeout. Plastic utensils and napkins were available on demand rather than being centrally located. These and other changes resulted in a net savings of $150,000 each year and the elimination of 2 million packaging items.

Closer to home, Comforts Café in San Anselmo achieved an estimated annual saving of $14,000 subsequent to complying with the new ordinance. Learn more here:

The Less Told Tale: Toxic PFAS in Takeout Containers

Jinesse Reynolds  

In addition to the problems of plastic pollution to wildlife and the ocean ecology, toxic chemicals leach out of plastic, with devastating effects on human health.

I spoke with Jinesse Reynolds, a member of the Sustainability Commission in San Anselmo, about her role as architect of the San Anselmo ban. Jinesse was particularly motivated by her deep concern about a particular class of chemicals called PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluroalkyl substances. PFAS are a kind of glue used to bind together fibers to make them impermeable. They are used in nonstick pans, waterproof jackets, stain resistant fabric, fire retardants, and personal care products.


Merino Sheep

  Containers like these are lined with plastic containing PFAS.  

Abundant research links PFAS to an array of harmful effects on fetuses, children, and adults. A recent review of the research literature was just published in the Lancet medical journal. Read the highlights in this CNN report:

From her work in the outdoor garment industry, Jinesse was familiar with the use of PFAS in waterproof clothing; this knowledge inspired her and her husband to found Ibex, a company that makes PFAS-free outdoor garments from organic Merino wool. Ibex products are water resistant…just like sheep.

Jinesse also knew that PFAS are commonly found in many kinds of food packaging. You know that shiny lining inside your takeout container? It is plastic and contains PFAS, which prevent grease and liquid from soaking into the paper container. Disposable cups are also lined with plastic. Hence the stipulation in the San Anselmo ordinance that all disposable food items have to be certified as PFAS free. As well as the strategy of disincentivizing use of disposable cups by adding an extra charge.

To support local vendors now that the ordinance has taken effect, Jinesse has been hard at work tracking down companies that manufacture takeout containers that are completely compostable and contain no PFAS liner. This vendor list is made available to local stores and restaurants in San Anselmo so that they can access products that are compliant with the ban.

What Else is Being Done?

At the county-level, initial work had commenced on an ordinance similar to the one passed in San Anselmo. However, because of the pandemic the County has postponed further consideration of it until the spring of 2021. Other than Fairfax, which has already passed a strong ordinance, other Marin towns are waiting for the County to pass its ordinance so that they can adopt it and receive enforcement assistance from the County.

Plastic clamshells are rarely compostable, particularly if they have a paper sticker or seal glued to them.  
Legal actions are also being taken to pressure large corporations to change their manufacturing practices. In February, the Earth Island Institute announced that they were suing ten major companies for contributing to the plastic pollution crisis. Three of them, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle, account for a full 14% of the plastic pollution in the ocean. Check out this informative overview of the case:

Consumer pressure has motivated some retail stores and fast food restaurants to reduce or eliminate PFAS and other chemicals in their packaging and processing equipment. Trace their progress in Who’s Minding the Store?A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals ( 

The bottom line is that some large retailers like Apple and Target are improving and received high scores on the report card, as did Whole Foods. Fast food companies generally fared badly including Subway and Starbucks, which were described as offering “no indication” of taking action to reduce PFAS or other chemicals in their food packaging.

Reusable foodware services offer another way to avoid disposables. For example, a startup company called Vessel manufactures stainless steel cups that can be borrowed at participating restaurants. Let’s say I am an undergraduate who wants a cappucino to take to class. I enter my credit card number at the Vessel website. Then I order my drink at the café, specifying use of a Vessel cup. I take the cup with me to class and enjoy my stimulating beverage. I return the cup (unwashed is OK) to the café or to a kiosk around town within five days. If I don’t return the cup, the company charges $15 to my credit card. Otherwise, the use of the cup is free. Look here to read about their pilot program in Berkeley:

  You can bring personal cutlery on the road just like they did in the 18th century.  

Reusables and Compostables in the Covid-19 Era

At the start of the pandemic many people worried about contact with contaminated surfaces. However, most health experts now agree that the virus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets rather than through surface contact. They also note that disposable and reusable products present similar issues in terms of contamination. If someone sneezes on a single-use plastic bag in the store then it is just as problematic as if they do so on a reusable one. This knowledge has cleared the way for supporting new initiatives to reuse foodware.

What Can You Do?

  • Bag your own groceries. In California, Governor Newsom has revived the plastic bag ban. In most stores you can bring in your own carryout bags if you agree to bag the groceries without letting the bags touch the checkout counter.
  • Patronize local establishments that have gotten rid of plastic foodware and avoid any paper takeout containers with a plastic lining. If you go somewhere that still uses plastic containers, don’t take the straws, condiment packets, and other non-essential utensils.
  • For more information on the San Anselmo ordinance and ideas for reducing your plastic foodware consumption, check out this presentation describing the final Master Class project of Bridget Clark and Julie Monroe:

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning call-to-action book at To see more birds and other images visit

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