A plastic cup near San Lorenzo Park.
A plastic cup at San Lorenzo Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County might delay 25-cent charge for disposable cups until 2022, eyes potential ballot measure

Originally, the cup charge was supposed to take effect on July 1, 2020. But then the pandemic hit, prompting the county to delay the launch until the start of 2021. Now, with the pandemic still ongoing, another delay is being pitched.

UPDATE: The item on possibly delaying the implementation of a 25-cent charge for disposable cups was moved to the next meeting for the board of supervisors, because county counsel found typos in the ordinance, according to county staff.

Santa Cruz County supervisors in late 2019 approved an ordinance that would require restaurants and stores that sell beverages in single-use disposable cups to charge an additional 25 cents for each cup. The measure was intended to reduce litter, waste and pollution, and encourage use of reusable cups.

Originally, that cup charge was supposed to take effect on July 1, 2020. But in between that time, the pandemic hit, prompting the county to delay the launch of the fee until the start of 2021.

Now, with the pandemic still ongoing, there might be another delay in implementing the quarter-a-cup charge — a move praised by business leaders but seen as a disappointment by environmentalists.

Meanwhile, county officials say they’re hoping the fee — once it does finally kick in — can be used for broader environmental protection efforts.

Under the existing ordinance, businesses would pocket the extra quarter. But a proposed ballot measure that county staff intend to present to supervisors this spring would — if passed by voters — funnel a share of the revenue generated by it to the county for its own environmental programs.

Delay till 2022 pitched

The reasons for delaying the cup charge were two-fold.

“Obviously, the health concern of, you know, handling each other’s cups,” said Matt Machado, the county’s director of public works and deputy county administrative officer. “And then the second concern is the economic hit to local businesses and trying to, you know, lighten that load a little bit until the economy comes back.”

That’s why county staff on Tuesday will ask supervisors to delay the ordinance’s effective date to Jan. 1, 2022 — a move business leaders argue would help establishments by giving them more time to plan to transition to reusable cups.

The potential delay comes after supervisors in August 2020 — again due to concerns about COVID-19 — amended the ordinance to have it go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. Though the disposable cup charge technically took effect then, no enforcement has happened so far.

Regardless of when enforcement does begin, the new rules would cover unincorporated parts of the county.

The cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville already have similar ordinances. In Watsonville, a measure went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, requiring a 10-cent customer charge for single-use cups to encourage the use of reusable cups and bottles. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz leaders earlier this month extended the compliance date on an ordinance that requires a 25-cent fee on disposable cups until March 8, 2022.

The details

Under the county’s ordinance, businesses cannot charge for the use of a reusable cup provided by a customer, and sellers may not waive or absorb the 25-cent charge for disposable cups. Charges for disposable cups would be identified separately on any post-sale receipt provided and, pre-sale, would be “clearly identified” for customers on menus, ordering platforms and/or menu boards.

If customers place orders online or by phone they would need to be informed of disposable cup charges at the time they place the order.

The ordinance has some exemptions. Customers using a payment card or voucher issued by the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children would be exempt from the disposable cup charge. So would those using an electronic benefit transfer card (EBT). Machado or his designee may also exempt an affected business or person from the requirements “for no more than one year” if they show that it would create an “undue hardship or practical difficulty not generally applicable to other businesses or persons in similar circumstances,” according to the ordinance.

Violators would first be given written warnings. Future violations then could lead to fines, starting at $100 and eventually climbing to up to $500. Enforcement would fall to the county’s zero-waste coordinators who work on educating local businesses.

As for potentially postponing disposable cup charges until next year, Casey Beyer, chief executive officer for the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, said such a move would be a “good thing” and give the business community more time to take the necessary steps to comply.

It would allow businesses to transition from single-use to recyclable material, Beyer said, adding, “It takes time to get that supply chain shifted.”

But to some environmental groups, a delay of the cup charge would be a let down.

Although “it’s somewhat understandable” based on people continuing to be fearful of potential COVID-19 transmission by way of handling reusable cups, scores of scientists have said that suchs containers are safe, said Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that advocates for clean shores and healthy habitats in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“There’s no real scientific reason to delay the cup charge,” she said, calling a potential delay “very disappointing.”

With more and more people getting food to go during the pandemic, “plastic pollution has escalated tremendously,” O’Dea said. “So it has been a bad year for plastic pollution and delaying a cup charge will only play into that.”

Still, the group is happy the county isn’t looking at tossing the ordinance entirely. “I guess it’s a compromise, but we are disappointed,” O’Dea said.

Is a ballot measure next?

County staff this spring also plan to bring a proposed ballot measure before supervisors that, if approved by voters, would funnel some of the revenue from the disposable cup charges toward county environmental programs and enforcement efforts for the ordinance, Machado said.

That ballot measure could come before voters as soon as next year.

Staff might also recommend adding a provision for the county’s longstanding bag charges to the proposed ballot measure, which could add additional revenue for the county. Passed in 2011, the county’s bag ordinance, intended to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags, requires grocers and retailers to charge customers 25 cents for paper or reusable plastic bags. As would be the case for the cup charge, stores keep that 25 cents.

“Potentially, this could generate some significant revenue to do some significant environmental programs,” Machado said. “It’ll also help with the enforcement.”

How much revenue could be generated from such a ballot measure annually depends to some degree on how customers would behave.

In documents prepared for supervisors last summer, county staff said that estimates based on a survey show that the average weekly cup use per business is 560. That would equate to more than 12 million single-use cups used annually in the county.

If 25% of local customers switched to bringing their own reusable cups that would mean about $2.3 million in revenue annually, county staff wrote last year. If only 10% made the switch, the total revenue would climb to about $2.8 million.

Based on those estimates — if the ballot measure were to split the revenue in half — the county could potentially expect upwards of $1 million in revenue each year.

Depending on how the question might be worded, there would be different thresholds for the ballot measure to win approval.

A specific revenue measure where the money is directed towards certain programs, like those that are environmentally beneficial, would require approval by two-thirds of voters.

A more general and less specific revenue measure would require 50% approval, according to county documents from last summer.


8:52 AM, Mar. 23, 2021: UPDATE: The item on possibly delaying the implementation of a 25-cent charge for disposable cups was moved to the next meeting for the board of supervisors, because county counsel found typos in the ordinance, according to county staff.