Plastic Straws Only On-Request Coming to NYC

In New York’s latest move to curb the ever-growing amount of plastic trash, the City Council is about to enact legislation that will prohibit restaurants from providing plastic straws to customers, except on request. 

The new law promises to transform beverage-drinking habits in the nation’s largest city by ending the common practice of indiscriminately distributing straws with every beverage purchase at full-service and fast-food restaurants, as well as coffee shops, food carts and bars.

The legislation, Intro. 936-A, is expected to cut millions of plastic straws from the city’s waste stream every day. 

Millions of straws are wasted every day in NYC; these and other throw-away plastics are a growing income source for the fossil-fuel industry.

Under the bill, all food service establishments in New York City would be obligated make plastic straws available if a customer requests one for any reason and must post signage to that effect.  This provision is wisely included to ensure that members of the disability community would have unimpeded access to plastic straws. The legislation would also allow restaurants to freely dispense plastic straws that meet stringent standards demonstrating that they are compostable.

The legislation, set to take effect on November 1, 2021, would add New York to the growing number of jurisdictions around the country that have moved to curtail a wide range of throw-away plastics, including plastic straws.   Laws restricting restaurants from dispensing plastic straws are already in place in Seattle, Portland, Miami Beach, Washington DC, and the State of California.

According to the National Park Service, Americans use as many as 500 million straws a day. 

Plastic straws cannot be effectively recycled.  They often end up as street litter or make their way into local waterways where they can endanger wildlife.  And plastic straws are not biodegradable; they break down into tiny microplastics that are dispersed throughout the environment and move up the food chain.

The new legislation would also ban restaurants and bars from dispensing plastic beverage stirrers, commonly used with alcoholic beverages and hot drinks.  Stirrers made from paper and other more environmentally friendly materials are already in widespread use. 

This legislation is the latest step by the New York City Council to reduce street litter and pollution by targeting throw-away plastic products.  In recent years, the City Council (and subsequently the State Legislature) has taken action to ban polystyrene foam food and beverage containers and curb plastic carry-out shopping bags. 

The straws-on-request legislation, originally introduced by former Councilmember Rafael Espinal and now sponsored by Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, enjoys broad support within the Council where a majority of councilmembers have joined as co-sponsors.  The bill is expected to pass at the Council’s stated meeting on May 13th and be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Unwanted plastic cutlery and other soon-to-be-trash from restaurants could shrink if City Council passes much-needed utensils-on-request legislation.

The litter and environmental problems posed by throw-away plastic items should be enough in and of themselves to prompt public officials to stem the ever-growing volume of these materials.  But there’s another justification for government action.

Plastics, which are made from fossil-fuels, have become a profit center for the oil and gas industry.  As auto-manufacturers and government officials make plans to move America away from the internal combustion engine, the oil and gas industry has come to increasingly view the manufacture of plastic products, including single-use plastics, as essential to its long-term prosperity.

Plastics production is expected to double in the next twenty years, or even sooner, according to long-term forecasts.  And if we ever want to curb the climate crisis, we will have to find ways to shut the fossil-fuel spigot and reverse our increasing use of throw-away plastics.

Another important piece of City Council legislation that would do exactly that is a bill that would make take-out eating utensils dispensed by New York City restaurants available only on request.

Specifically, the legislation, Intro. 1775-B, would require food service establishments to dispense throw-away utensils (including knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, chopsticks, and cups) as well as condiment packets and napkins to customers for take-out or delivery only when customers make a specific request for those items.

Most New Yorkers who order take-out food do not usually need throw-away utensils and single-use condiments; many are frustrated when they receive such items automatically, only to toss them in the trash unused. 

Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer’s thoughtful utensils-on-request legislation would eliminate this problem. And it would save money for a restaurant industry that is still recovering from the economic jolts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Passage of this bill should be a priority for Speaker Corey Johnson and his City Council colleagues. 

Of course, we recognize that even if these two bills are enacted, they alone would not solve the problem of single-use plastics.  But these initiatives would certainly slash some of the easiest-to-curtail kinds of plastic junk that New Yorkers deal with every day.  The amount of waste the bills could eliminate would be significant over time.  And the passage of this legislation would build momentum for the larger battles ahead with the fossil-fuel industry.