U.S. cities are bolstering efforts to curb single-use plastic straws and utensils as the focus on reducing waste intensifies globally.
Seattle and Oakland, Calif., are among the most recent cities to enact bans, which are going into effect July 1. At least a couple of other cities are reportedly considering doing the same.
The moves come as companies are also increasingly moving away from plastic straws and utensils even though the cost of alternative supplies are more expensive. Shareholder proposals are driving some to adopt broad sustainability and recycling pledges, while government bans are also forcing companies to look for alternatives. In the most recent illustration of the trend, Starbucks Corp. announced July 9 that it will eliminate single-use plastic straws from its more than 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020 in favor of recyclable strawless lids and paper or compostable plastic straws.
"It's kind of the beginning to a long conversation on packaging," Conrad Mackerron, senior vice president of As You Sow, said in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence. As You Sow is a nonprofit group focused on environmentalism through shareholder action.
Seattle's rules bar offering single-plastic straws and utensils and require compostable or recyclable alternatives, according to Seattle Public Utilities. The city's ban began in 2008 but officials delayed it until this year as they waited for more companies to manufacture alternatives. Oakland's rules only cover single-use straws but allow diners to get a straw if they ask for one or if they order takeout, according to city code.
On a larger scale, San Francisco and New York are considering bans on plastic straws while the California Assembly passed a bill barring restaurants and other business that serve food from offering single-use straws unless a customer asks for one, The New York Times reported. California's Senate is considering the bill in committee, according to the state Legislature.
The U.K. in April also announced its intent to ban plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, according to a government announcement. U.K. officials will start a consultation on the ban later this year, and no timeline for its rollout has been announced.
Groups monitoring plastic waste give wildly varying estimates on the number of items consumers are discarding. Environmental groups including For A Strawless Ocean frequently cite estimates of 500 million straws per day used in the U.S. The U.K. government, citing studies on the matter, said 8.5 billion plastic straws are thrown away there each year.
Seattle-based Starbucks began offering compostable straws, splash sticks and cutlery at its stores in its home city when Seattle's ban began, a company spokesperson said in an e-mail. Starbucks declined to provide a cost estimate for the switch.
The coffee giant said July 9 that its new strawless lids are already used for a small number of cold drinks in more than 8,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S. and Canada. Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, will be the first cities to see strawless lids replace single-use plastic straws, according to Starbucks.
The worldwide switch will eliminate more than 1 billion plastic straws from Starbucks stores, the company said. Starbucks is also testing paper straws in its U.K. stores.
McDonald's Corp. and Yum! Brands Inc.'s KFC and Taco Bell did not return messages seeking comment, though the Illinois-based burger chain is rolling out paper straws in 1,361 restaurants in the U.K. and Ireland by 2019.
KFC Singapore on June 20 stopped providing plastic straws and drink-up lids to dine-guests in favor of looking further into biodegradable packing, Inside Retail Asia reported.
McDonald's has also pledged to use packaging entirely from recyclable or sustainable sources by 2025. Outside the restaurant industry, Swiss food giant Nestlé SA has made a similar pledge to McDonald's, and Unilever PLC is working with two other companies to develop new technology to recycle PET plastic waste into material for food packaging.
In Seattle, restaurants have switched to a variety of options: offering compostable plastics, redesigned strawless lids or no straws at all, Morgan Huether, spokesperson for the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, said during a phone interview.
"We're seeing a huge variety in what our members are doing," Huether said. "Each individual operator has been going out and finding what works for them."
Alternatives are generally more costly than the plastic they replace.
"A paper straw will be five times the cost of a similarly sized plastic straw," said Laura Craven, director of communications and marketing for Florida and New Jersey supply company Imperial Dade. Craven noted that Imperial Dade supplies more than 40,000 restaurants, cruise lines, cafeterias and grocery stores and that more than half of those customers use straws of some kind.
Compostable plastic straws cost about four times more than their noncompostable counterparts, while bamboo or metal straws can drive up that cost difference even further, Craven said. A compostable fork can cost about eight times more than nonbiodegradable plastic.
Aside from the costs, moving away from plastic puts more pressure on manufacturers to keep up with demand. Craven said Imperial Dade has a three-month backorder for paper straws but is working with manufacturers to try to make more alternatives available.
Increased demand could drive up wait times even higher.
"If they were not able to use plastic straws and could only use paper or compostable PLA straws, I don't see right now how we would keep up with that demand," Craven said.
Even if companies can find alternatives to plastic, Mackerron said, people should be encouraged to recycle more in the U.S., and companies should have a stake in ensuring that packaging is actually recycled.
"That's what it comes down to: Make your stuff recyclable and become a part of a system … that ensures we do have significant recycling rates," he said.
Seattle's ban does require businesses to assume responsibility for collecting and recycling straws and utensils, according to city code.
Mackerron pointed to British Columbia, which first put into place "extended producer responsibility" plans in the 1990s requiring companies to pay for recycling programs.
As of March 2017, the programs shifted $85 million in costs from local governments to industry, according to the British Columbia Ministry of Environment.
Mackerron also said British Columbia boasts recycling rates of 70% or higher, compared to 30% in the U.S.
"That's a very good harbinger that this can work," he said.