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Plastic straws may be the poster child for efforts to reduce plastics use, but legislation is unfolding across the nation to restrict or ban many types of restaurant packaging and single-use cutlery, packaging and other food ware. 

State restaurant associations, restaurateurs and suppliers are working with city councils and state legislatures to make sure new restrictions are workable for restaurants and that lawmakers understand the availability and impact of alternative packaging.

A sweeping bill is likely to be introduced in the U.S. Congress this fall to ban many single-use plastics, require deposits for beverage containers, and set recycling targets. The National Restaurant Association is working with the bill’s sponsors to educate them on how the legislation could affect the restaurant industry. 

“We are concerned about the lack of recycling and composting infrastructure,” Laura Abshire, the Association’s food and sustainability director, said in a letter to the legislation’s lead sponsors. “For any recycling or composting program to work, the proper national infrastructure must first be present before mandates are imposed on businesses and consumers.” 

Abshire said the Association is providing resources to help restaurant operators choose packaging that works for their businesses and brands, and keeping them up to date on the legislative and regulatory landscape. 

The good news is that packaging suppliers are adapting quickly as the marketplace and many consumers look for changes. The Foodservice Packaging Institute and its members are working with the Association, foodservice operators and local communities to help operators understand their options. 

FPI offers resources on the considerations involved in choosing single-use versus reusable packaging and a strategic sourcing guide to help restaurants source new packaging if they choose to do so. 

Restaurant companies -- McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Brands, Wendy’s, Darden, and many others -- are fully engaged in the packaging sustainability effort. Among other changes, many restaurant locations now offer straws only upon request (which lets customers decide if they need a straw). Many state restaurant associations and operators are working with local governments to encourage investment in recycling and composting infrastructure to help recover foodservice packaging. 

The National Restaurant Association’s 2018 State of Restaurant Sustainability report found most operators engage in recycling and source at least some packaging and supplies made with recycled content or certified as compostable. Nearly half of Americans say they would change their spending habits to reduce their environmental impact, according to recent Nielsen research. 

A snapshot of recent laws and regulations that affect foodservice packaging and food ware: 

Plastic straws

  • Seattle in 2008 became the first big U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils in restaurants. The law didn’t take effect until last year because restaurants couldn’t find enough compostable alternatives.
  • Washington, D.C.’s plastic-straw ban took effect in January; fines started in July.
  • About 60 other jurisdictions -- many in California, Florida and New York -- have either banned plastic straws or restricted them to by-request only.
  • California is the first state to impose a “straws-only-on-request” mandate for restaurant operators. The law covers all fullservice-restaurant operators starting in October; larger fullservice restaurants have been covered since April.

Reusables

  • Berkeley, Calif., requires restaurants to provide reusable food ware to dine-in guests and charge guests for each single-use cup or non-reusable food container; guests can get disposable food ware only by request or at self-service stations. By January 2020, Berkeley restaurants can use only certified-compostable packaging. By July, all restaurants must use durable, reusable plates, cups and utensils for dine-in customers, and charge 25 cents for each disposable cup a guest requests, even if it’s compostable. The city says it wants to eliminate all single-use food ware by 2022.
  • San Francisco, Palo Alto, and other California jurisdictions are considering similar rules. 

Polystyrene (foam) containers

  • More than 100 U.S. cities have banned polystyrene, or foam, containers in restaurants.
  • Statewide bans on polystyrene packaging in restaurants and other businesses take effect in 2020 in both Maine (January) and Maryland (July).
  • The California Restaurant Association this spring sued to block San Diego’s polystyrene ban, saying the city did “zero economic analysis” and didn’t account for how polystyrene alternatives affect the environment. The ban is on hold for now. 

Plastic bags:

  • Eight states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont — and dozens of localities have banned, taxed or assessed fees on single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

Single-use plastics:

  • Vermont in July 2020 will prohibit restaurants from providing customers with plastic bags, polystyrene containers, drink stirrers or plastic straws.