Is it the Last Straw for Plastic?

As more U.S. and international cities take steps to ban plastic straws and other plastic items in restaurants, and grocery retailers from France to Australia taking a hard line on the issue, it’s clear that sustainability and environmental consciousness are becoming essential to the food business.

New York, New Jersey and California are just some of the states focused on curbing plastic use or stopping it all together.

The New York City Council introduced a bill banning the use of plastic straws in the city, reported CBS New York (May 23). The ban would include plastic coffee stirrers, and restaurants would be able to offer paper or reusable metal straws as a replacement.

In California, the state Assembly passed a bill that would require dine-in restaurants to only provide single-use plastic straws upon request, reported The Wichita Eagle (May 30). Restaurants would be warned for first and second violations and fined $25 per day for subsequent violations, with an annual fine limit of $300.

On a more local level in the state, Malibu’s City Council banned restaurants from giving out plastic straws, stirrers and utensils to customers, reported Los Angeles Times (Feb. 26). Businesses had until June 1 to make the change, swapping out the plastic items for ones made of paper, wood or bamboo. Diners are also encouraged to use reusable straws and cutlery made of metal or glass. A plastic lid ban would likely be next.

The new law marks Malibu’s latest move to crack down on the distribution of single-use plastics. The beach town was early to adopt a plastic shopping bag ban, passing an ordinance in 2008 to keep bags from drifting into the ocean and killing marine life.

“This is a community based on its ocean and beaches and we want to protect those,” said Craig George, Malibu’s environmental sustainability director.

He noted that no matter whether a city is large or small, its actions can have an impact.

“Individual cities have to decide how they’re going to protect the earth,” he said. “We’ve got to start somewhere. If we can start locally, that’s the best place to start.”

A perfect example of Mr. George’s philosophy in action is Monmouth Beach, NJ. The shore town put a ban on plastic straws and bags into effect to keep more garbage from piling up on the beach, reported Asbury Park Press (May 23). Retailers in the borough can’t package food in polystyrene foam containers, as well.

While only a handful of businesses are likely to be impacted, Mayor Sue Howard said she hoped it would prompt consumers to think twice before asking for a straw at a restaurant, for example. The shore’s largest environmental groups noted that the ban is the most comprehensive plastics ban in the area, if not the state, to eliminate trash that piles up on one of the town’s most important assets: the beach.

Environmental group Clean Ocean Action conducts beach sweeps and has noticed plastic trash grow to account for 84% of all debris, said executive director Cindy Zipf.

“We’re seeing a terrible trend and what we need is leadership,” Zipf said.

On a world scale, EU’s proposed ban on single-use plastics is aimed at prohibiting many commonplace plastic items including straws, cutlery and drink stirrers, as well as collecting all plastic bottles for recycling by 2025, reported BBC (May 28).

The UN is even recommending that governments consider banning or taxing single-use bags or food containers, reported Reuters (June 4). In its report, the UN called for better sorting of waste and recycling, economic incentives to promote eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, education of consumers and promotion of reusable products.

U.S. companies like Bon Appetit Management Co., as well as global grocers, are doing their part to limit the use of plastic straws and other non-recyclable utensils or food packaging.

Foodservice firm Bon Appetit is banning plastic straws companywide, which includes 1,000 cafes and restaurants in 33 states across the U.S. The phase-out will be complete by September 2019.

French retailer Carrefour plans to have 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for its private label brands by 2025. The company’s goal is to eliminate non-recyclable packaging of organic fruits and vegetables and to stop selling plastic straws by the end of 2018. In addition, polystyrene trays used in the meat, fish and cheese departments will be replaced with recyclable packaging, and by 2022, Carrefour will use 50% recycled plastics for its juice and soda bottles and 50% for its water bottles.

In Australia, supermarkets Woolworths and Coles will reduce plastic products and packaging, reported CBS News (June 4). Woolworths’ stores in Australia and New Zealand will no longer sell plastic straws by the end of 2018, phase out plastic shopping bags June 20, and expand the company’s program to remove plastic wrap from fruit and vegetables. Coles set a 2020 deadline to make its packaging recyclable and cut food waste by half.

But some companies are swimming against the tide and pushing back on the ban.

A shareholder proposal to discontinue McDonald’s from offering plastic straws was voted down, reported Modesto Bee (May 24). While the company isn’t ready to stop offering plastic straws, it is working on finding alternatives.

Plastic packaging manufacturer Tetra Pak, for its part, claims plastic straws serve a “vital” function in cartons and should not be banned, reported BBC (May 25). The company argues plastic straws can be recycled together with used cartons if they are pushed back into the box. Tetra Pak is developing a paper straw, but it will “be some time” before it is widely available.

UK-based Paper Cup Alliance believes governments need to make it easier to recycle disposable coffee cups, reported BBC (June 3). The alliance, which represents manufacturers, wants governments and councils to increase the number of bins to recycle paper cups and mechanisms to transport them to processing facilities.

As environmental awareness becomes the standard in the food industry, it will likely be only a matter of time before even the most resistant will be required to adopt the plastic ban and broader sustainability initiatives.