What is a ‘Social District’ & how to make them sustainable

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Katie Craig

Former State Director, NCPIRG

In hot North Carolina summers, true North Carolinians know that the best way to spend it is either by a cool body of water or with a cold drink in hand (or better yet both).  And with more cities across the state adopting “Social Districts” it’s easier than ever to grab a cold one and explore your town. 

What is a Social District? 

These so-called “Social Districts” began to pop up after a 2021 law began allowing for cities to designate areas in which businesses are able to sell alcoholic beverages in to-go containers so that folks can walk around with those designated beverages within the specified area. 

The idea was meant to be an innovative and fun new way to bring new business to downtown areas recovering from COVID, but they also have brought another consequence: lots of unnecessary plastic waste. 

In many of North Carolina’s social districts, plastic cups are the only allowable to-go option based on specifications required by the city. This has led to businesses that had never before offered plastic cups, now handing them out left and right. These cups are not able to be recycled, meaning many of them end up on our city streets, filling our landfills, or washing into our rivers and streams where they can harm wildlife and cause ecological damage. 

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So, what can we do to make these districts more sustainable? 

There are a number of actions that cities, businesses, and individuals can take to support their local businesses and enjoy these social districts, while still protecting our environment and health. Here’s our recommendations for what can be done. 

What cities can do: 

Ditch the single use plastic cups. 

Set up or refine ordinances to allow for non-plastic containers. While reusable is best, even compostable is better than plastic. The 2021 law and ABC requirements only require that a cup:

  • Clearly identifies which permitted business the beverage was purchased.
  • Clearly displays a logo or some other mark unique to that social district.
  • Not be glass.
  • Display the phrase “Drink Responsibly- Be 21.”
  • And not hold more than 16 fluid ounces.

None of these requirements state the cup must be clear or plastic, however some cities have adopted further regulations that implement such requirements. Cities should not mandate the use of unnecessary plastic and should consider reusable, compostable, or more recyclable alternatives.

Use social districts as an opportunity to create reusable infrastructure.

Social Districts actually provide a great opportunity for cities to pilot small-scale reusable or closed-loop systems. For example, cities could have specified reusable “social district” cups with designated disposal sites where the city or third party contractor can recover, sanitize, and provide them back to the businesses for reuse. Or cities could even test something like a deposit return program, where customers pay $0.50 for the to-go cup, get $0.50 back when they return it to a participating restaurant, many of whom already have the ability to sanitize and reuse their service ware.

Partner with local non-profits for input & assistance

Many cities and towns have local organizations that are interested in providing input on ideas to reduce waste and can even offer assistance in a variety of ways ranging from providing education for businesses and the public, assisting in the set up of reusable systems, and more. Cities should be sure to include them as stakeholders in the process and seek their assistance to set up sustainable social districts. 

Such organizations include groups such as Don’t Waste Durham, Toward Zero Waste, and more. For help identifying local partners, you can also reach out to us at [email protected].

Track waste impacts

At a minimum, cities should track the waste impacts of the social districts. Keeping track of data such as how many to-go drinks social district businesses have sold can help not only assess the success of the program but also the waste impacts. Tracking cups used as well as conducting waste audits, can help cities to answer questions like “just how much excess trash is this really creating?” and “are cups being properly disposed of?” and then take corrective actions as needed. In short, when we know better, often we can do better. 

What businesses can do:

If local ordinances allow, opt for non-plastic to-go cups. 

Different cities have adopted a variety of local requirements, but if your city allows non-plastic options, opt for more sustainable to-go containers and be sure they are being properly disposed of.  For example, if you are using compostable cups, be sure to have composting bins on site with educational signage about what can go in what bins and then be sure that those materials are then sent to a composting service or facility, not just dumped in the landfill.

Voice your concerns about the single-use plastic waste to city council & business liaisons. 

Many cities have a variety of opportunities for businesses to provide input on the social district. Whether at town meetings, through surveys, or in discussions with business liaisons, businesses should voice your concerns about the impacts of new waste your business is creating due to social districts and ask the town to consider more sustainable options. As a business, it can also help to track information on how many plastic cups you are using, new trash you are seeing around your business, etc. to provide data to supplement your feedback.

What individuals can do: 

Tell your City Councilors you want a Green Social District.

If your city has or is considering a social district, let your local elected officials know you love the idea of a social district but would love it even more if it were green!

Think twice before ordering the to-go option. 

In the meantime, while our businesses and cities find ways to be more sustainable, ask yourself: “Am I really planning on walking around with this drink or should I order this drink for here instead of to-go? Do I really need to walk around to enjoy this drink or can I take a brief stop and then continue my exploring?” Of course, we want folks to enjoy the social districts and support local businesses in the process but taking a few seconds to make sure you really need the drink to go can help cut down unnecessary waste.

Dispose of your cups properly. 

Lastly, if you do opt for a to-go cup, be sure to dispose of the cup properly. Many cities have bins designated for the social district cups, be sure to find one and properly dispose of your cup to increase the likelihood that it is properly recycled, composted, or otherwise disposed of.

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Katie Craig

Former State Director, NCPIRG