Seattle just became the first city in the nation to ban the use of plastic straws along with plastic utensils and cocktail picks.
The city is removing these environmentally unfriendly products from restaurants, but what will it mean for cleanliness and the casual dining experience? My guess maybe that napkin use (and disposal) will skyrocket and shirts and pants are about to get a lot dirtier.
On Sunday, the city’s directive went into effect. Under this directive, 5,000 food service businesses in the city will not provide customers with these plastic products but may offer upon request other options made from compostable paper or compostable plastic.
The penalty for non-compliance is a fine of $250.
The Seattle Times explains that this follows the styrofoam city’s campaign to rid the city of what they consider environmentally unfriendly products:
This ban comes a decade after the city first adopted an ordinance in 2008 to require that all one-time-use food service items be recyclable or compostable.
The use of Styrofoam packaging in food service was banned in 2009. Foodservice businesses were required to use compostable or recyclable food service ware in 2010, provide recycling and compost bins, and sign up for collection service. Seattle Public Utilities exempted plastic utensils and straws due to a lack of compostable alternatives. Now that the market has caught up, that exemption is expiring at the end of June.
Why implement this ban? According to the Washington Post:
Most plastic straws aren’t heavy enough to make it through industrial recycling sorters, according to the Strawless Ocean campaign, and can ruin an otherwise good load of recycling…
Strawless Ocean estimates that 71 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of turtles have some kind of plastic in their stomachs. The organization says ingested plastic can cut the mortality rate of marine life by 50 percent.
This mandate could be costly for businesses to comply with while trying to keep customers satisfied.
Alternatives to these plastic goods are more expensive which will drive up costs for businesses and that may get passed on to consumers. According to one Seattle business owner, the price tag for compostable straws can be double or even triple the price of plastic straws.
In addition, supply has not kept up with demand for alternatives. Bloomberg reports that when some restaurant groups tried to source paper straws, they found that these products were back ordered months. A ban like this will only make the sourcing problem worse in the short-term. (Thankfully we live in a free-market where businesses will see the shortage as an opportunity to start producing these alternatives and developing new ones.)
There could also be other unintended consequences. If you can’t get a plastic fork or spoon with your meal or ice-cream, you will probably wipe your fingers more often using up and discarding more paper napkins in the process. The less mannerly may just wipe their hands on their clothes requiring more frequent washing. Generating more waste and water usage are counter-productive to the goal of being more environmentally friendly.
Not every diner may be on board. When celebrity chef Andre and restaurateur José Andrés swapped plastic straws for paper ones in 2010, customers were livid and nearly revolted:
"It was the closest thing I've ever seen to a customer revolt," he said. (Another close call: When he changed his recipe for patatas bravas 20 years ago.) "Nobody liked them. Customers were mad. Bartenders wanted to quit because they weren't getting tips. It was awful."
He reverted back to plastic and tried again a few years later, to the same results. Now he's settled on a compromise: Customers don't get plastic straws unless they specifically request them, and only about 5 percent do.
No one is opposed to less pollution of the earth or better use of resources, but this seems to be part of an anti-plastic campaign that aims to rid our nation of this man-made input.
As Amy Cooke explained on Earth Day, plastic serves important life-saving purposes and doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets these days. The use of plastics for eating and drinking improved our dining experience and made it easier to eat on the go.
We'll see what happens as this ban takes effect.