The Plastic Straw Debate Bubbles Up to the Surface

The Plastic Straw Debate Bubbles Up to the Surface

Drink it in; regulations reducing use of plastic straws are being looked at on the state, city and local levels around the country.

In July, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils at restaurants and retail stores. Then came San Francisco, which passed an ordinance expected to take effect next year.

States, including New York and California, have passed a mixed bag of laws, such as allowing restaurateurs to offer straws on request, while some are focusing on quick-service operations and others on full-service establishments specifically.

Whether or not you think this represents a legislative last straw, regulation of these small plastic tubes paints a larger picture: cities and states are grappling with ways to reduce litter and respond to calls for action from members of their communities and environmental organizations.

As a result, restaurateurs and foodservice operators are working on ways to act more sustainably while satisfying customers, operating cost effectively and complying with the law.

What’s a restaurant to do? Several have voluntarily stopped serving plastic straws and utensils as well as reduced their plastic packaging. They include Starbucks, Cava and Bon Appetit Management Company.

Straws, says Lynn Dyer, president of the Food Packaging Institute, are of growing interest, but the reality is “studies by Keep America Beautiful show litter happens because people improperly dispose of their trash. We have to change consumer behavior to stop that.”

Following is legislation that’s already passed or currently under consideration:

Enacted bans

  • Seattle (also bans plastic utensils)
  • California cities: San Francisco, Alameda, Carmel by the Sea, Davis, Long Beach, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, Richmond, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and South Lake Tahoe. (San Luis Obispo also bans plastic bottles and cups in some venues and Santa Cruz includes cutlery)
  • Fort Myers, Fla.
  • Mount Pleasant, S.C.
  • Monmouth, N.J.
  • Provincetown, Mass. (includes plastic straws and polystyrene)

Proposed legislation

  • Statewide bills in New York and California (specify restaurants could serve straws upon request)
  • Hawaii (expected to move legislation during next Congressional session)
  • Oregon (passed resolution last spring, but is likely to pass actual ban this fall)
  • Portland, Ore. (resolution intends to reduce plastic straw and utensil use)
  • Santa Barbara (would also require plastic utensils be provided on request)
  • Washington, D.C. (City Council to debate straw ban this fall)
  • New York City (City Council exploring potential for a ban)

Laura Abshire, the National Restaurant Association’s director of food and sustainability policy, says she anticipates more legislation being introduced and more restaurateurs having to decide how best to comply and whether or not to look for straw alternatives.

“It’s crucial to stay on top of the issue and communicate with other operators in your communities,” she says. “At the end of the day, restaurants need to work with their suppliers and distributors to choose packaging options that work for their businesses and customers.”