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Banning Plastic Straws and Utensils

The era of plastics is over in the City of Seattle, at least when it comes to food-service ware provided by food-service businesses.

As of July 1, 2018, food-service businesses (including restaurants, grocery stores, deli’s, coffee shops, and food trucks) selling or providing food within the City of Seattle for consumption on or off the premises must use compostable straws (paper or plastic) and compostable utensils. (See Seattle Municipal Code 21.36.086(A).) In other words, single-use, disposable plastic utensils and straws cannot be used by restaurants and other similar businesses (except for a handful of exceptions, including for customers who may need a plastic straw for medical reasons).

This requirement to use food-service products with less staying power and less impact on the marine environment joins other similar bans Seattle put in place years ago:

For years, plastic straws and utensils were exempt from the requirement to use recyclable or compostable food-service ware. However, according to Seattle Public Utilities, now that there are “multiple manufacturers of approved compostable utensils and straws, these food service items will no longer be exempt from the existing requirements.”

While other cities have partially limited the use of plastic straws (e.g., Oakland and Alameda: straws provided only upon request; Miami Beach: straws banned from the beach), Seattle’s ban is more far-reaching. Following in the footsteps of Vancouver, B.C., Malibu, California, and a smattering of other smaller U.S. cities, Seattle’s approach is an all-encompassing ban on use of plastic straws (and utensils) by all food-service businesses.

Why the Ban?

Seattle Public Utilities indicates that the intent of these restrictions is to minimize landfilling. Plastic straws end up in the landfill (or the ocean) because they are impossible to recycle due to their small size. While this blog is not intended to be a thorough review of all of the problems posed by plastic straws, these articles from National Geographic, Vox, and Popular Science do a nice job of reviewing the issues.

A Domino Effect?

Starbucks, a Seattle original with a worldwide presence, intends to eliminate the use of plastic straws in all locations by 2020 by developing a strawless lid for its beverages. Airlines, such as Alaska and American, and hotel chains, including Hyatt Hotels and Hilton Hotels, have adopted plans to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic straws, and state legislation may be around the corner: California and New York are considering legislation focused on reducing the use of plastic straws. Closer to home, the City of Edmonds is moving towards the Seattle model of banning plastic straws and utensils, with a full ban planned to come into effect in 2020.

Future Developments

Several years ago, plastic bag bans were the focus. Now the attention has turned towards plastic straws and I don’t anticipate that the issue will go away anytime soon. Plastic straws are a minor part of the plastics puzzle and these types of bans can give us all food-for-thought in a world in which plastics are ever-present.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Flannary Collins

Flannary Collins is the managing attorney for MRSC. She first joined MRSC as a legal consultant in August 2013 after serving as assistant city attorney for the city of Shoreline where she advised all city departments on a wide range of issues. Flannary became the managing attorney in 2018. In this role, she manages the MRSC legal team of five attorneys.

At MRSC, Flannary enjoys providing legal guidance to municipalities on all municipal issues, including the OPMA, PRA, and elected officials’ roles and responsibilities. She also serves on the WSAMA Board of Directors as Secretary-Treasurer.