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

County agrees to delay 25-cent charge for disposable cups. What it all means for you

The ordinance — first approved in late 2019 but delayed amid the pandemic — would require restaurants and stores in unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County that sell beverages in single-use cups to charge an additional 25 cents for each cup.

An ordinance that aims to cut down on litter, waste and pollution and encourage the use of reusable cups instead of disposable ones in Santa Cruz County is set for a 2022 start date following months of pandemic-related delays.

The ordinance would require restaurants and stores in unincorporated parts of the county that sell beverages in single-use cups to charge an additional 25 cents per cup. The measure was first approved in late 2019, but enforcement was put off in large part to give businesses a break amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic devastation.

County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to move forward with delaying implementation until Jan. 1, 2022. The item is expected to return on May 18 for final adoption.

“We want to create a situation where businesses feel supported and willingly comply,” Supervisor Manu Koenig said. “I think this is a very difficult time this year to try to implement new regulations, and it would probably ultimately lead to less compliance and a bit of a rockier start for this program. So I do think it’s in our best interest to delay the implementation.”

The cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville already have similar rules — though only Watsonville has implemented them. On Jan. 1, 2020, Watsonville instituted a 10-cent customer charge. Earlier this year, Santa Cruz city leaders extended the compliance date on an ordinance that requires a 25-cent fee on disposable cups until March 8, 2022.

What the ordinance will mean for businesses and customers

Under the ordinance, businesses cannot charge for the use of a reusable cup provided by a customer — and sellers cannot waive or absorb the 25-cent charge for disposable cups; it must be passed on to the customer.

The ordinance includes some exemptions, including:

  • Customers using a payment card or voucher issued by the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
  • Customers using electronic benefit transfer card (EBT).
  • County officials may also exempt a 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 be given written warnings first; future violations could lead to fines, starting at $100 and eventually climbing as high as $500.

While the existing ordinance would allow businesses to pocket the extra quarter charged for disposable cups, county officials are mulling a ballot measure that could funnel a share of the revenue generated to county environmental programs.

With 2022 an election year, Supervisor Zach Friend said he was still interested in discussing the opportunity to put such a measure before voters.

“I think there’s an ability here to have a shared money between the business to recoup costs, maybe even make a little bit on it, but also fund much-needed environmental programs, especially with some of the additional waste that we’ve seen from single-use products that’s really exploded during this pandemic,” he said.