Seattle Beats San Francisco to Plastic Straw and Utensil Ban

Seattle's ban took effect Sunday, while San Franciso's proposed legislation, if successful, would begin July 1, 2019. Other cities have plastic straw restrictions, but Seattle's is the first outright ban. Compostable alternatives are permitted.

3 minute read

July 6, 2018, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

"In a first-of-its-kind law for any major American city, Seattle has instituted a ban on plastic straws and utensils [pdf] at all food service businesses," reports Lydia O'Connor for HuffPost. The ban took effect July 1, though the city had launched a "Strawless in Seattle" campaign last September. It is administered by Seattle Public Utilities, along with other food service packaging requirements.

The ordinance prohibits restaurants, delis, coffee shops, food trucks, cafeterias and grocery stores from providing the plastic items to customers. Upon request only, those vendors may provide people with a compostable straw or utensil.

"In San Francisco, plastic drinking straws could soon be going the way of non-reusable shopping bags [in 2007, the first city to do so] and Styrofoam containers [2017] — that is to say, strictly prohibited within city limits," reported Dominic Fracassa on May 15 for the San Francisco Chronicle. The state followed suit with the former when it banned single-use plastic bags in September 2014 and voters upheld the law in a plastics industry-initiated referendum two years later.

Like the Seattle ordinance, the San Francisco Plastic and Litter Reduction Ordinance [pdf], introduced by Supervisors Katy Tang and Ahsha Safai, would ban plastic straws and utensils. If passed, it would take effect July 1, 2019. The Seattle ban stems from an ordinance passed 10 years ago "that phases out various plastic products from the city’s food industry," according to The Seattle Times.

Why straws and utensils?

"These small pieces of plastic are among the most frequently littered items, advocates for such bans say," adds O'Connor. "They also easily make their way into the ocean when washed down storm drains and are too small to be processed by recycling centers."

"Critics of plastic straws also frequently cite a widely circulated and graphic video showing marine biologists struggling to remove one from a sea turtle’s nostril for nearly eight minutes," adds The Chronicle's Fracassa. "The video has more than [30] million views on YouTube."

Plastic straws are "frequently cited as one of the top ten contributors to marine debris pollution," according to the Surfrider Foundation which is strongly backing the proposed San Francisco ordinance.

Restrictions, not bans, more popular

Unlike Seattle and potentially San Francisco, many California cities and one county have enacted restrictions rather than outright bans, so plastic straws are available upon request. A bill would make the restriction state law.

  • "San Luis Obispo’s restrictions on single-use plastic bottles, straws and cups took effect on March 1," reported Nick Wilson for The Tribune on Feb. 28, 2018. 
  • Malibu's "ban on restaurants and food vendors from offering or selling plastic straws, stirrers and utensils to customers" took effect June 1, reported Alene Tchekmedyian for the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 26, 2018.
  • The Davis ordinance passed on June 6, 2017 and took effect on Sept.1, 2017.
  • Oakland approved an ordinance on May 1, 2018 that includes a provision directing the city administrator "to return to the council in six months with draft legislation for including containers, utensils and other disposable food-service ware in the restrictions in addition to single-use straws," according to KTVU. "Santa Cruz County and the cities of Alameda and Manhattan Beach have adopted similar plastic straw regulations."
  • Majority Leader Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) introduced "Straws-Upon-Request" legislation in January. Assembly Bill 1884 has passed the assembly and is awaiting to by heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Finally, in April, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her government's "intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds."

"Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world, which is why protecting the marine environment is central to our agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting," May said.

Monday, July 2, 2018 in Huffington Post

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Rendering of wildlife crossing over 101 freeway in Los Angeles County.

World's Largest Wildlife Overpass In the Works in Los Angeles County

Caltrans will soon close half of the 101 Freeway in order to continue construction of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing near Agoura Hills in Los Angeles County.

April 15, 2024 - LAist

Workers putting down asphalt on road.

U.S. Supreme Court: California's Impact Fees May Violate Takings Clause

A California property owner took El Dorado County to state court after paying a traffic impact fee he felt was exorbitant. He lost in trial court, appellate court, and the California Supreme Court denied review. Then the U.S. Supreme Court acted.

April 18, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Wind turbines and solar panels against a backdrop of mountains in the Mojave Desert near Palm Springs, California

California Grid Runs on 100% Renewable Energy for Over 9 Hours

The state’s energy grid was entirely powered by clean energy for some portion of the day on 37 out of the last 45 days.

6 hours ago - Fast Company

Close-up of hand holding up wooden thermometer in front of blurred street

New Forecasting Tool Aims to Reduce Heat-Related Deaths

Two federal agencies launched a new, easy-to-use, color-coded heat warning system that combines meteorological and medical risk factors.

7 hours ago - Associated Press via Portland Press Herald

View of Dallas city skyline with moderately busy freeway in foreground at twilight.

AI Traffic Management Comes to Dallas-Fort Worth

Several Texas cities are using an AI-powered platform called NoTraffic to help manage traffic signals to increase safety and improve traffic flow.

April 24 - Dallas Morning News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.