Seattle has become the largest metropolitan city to forbid the use of plastic straws and utensils as part of the plastic utensil and straw ban which took effect July 1. The rule now requires all bars and restaurants to use non-plastic cutlery and straws or face a $250 penalty per infraction, however city management indicated it would work alongside businesses to help them comply before handing out fines.
Several businesses are reporting increases in operating costs due to the higher price of compostable straws compared to plastic.
Staff at Grecian Corner told KOMO News that the additional cost of straws is causing them to leave out utensils for to-go orders “until they become more affordable,” according to Tina Veloras, an employee at the restaurant.
“It’ll have to be a lot of explaining to customers,” she added.
Bubble Tea Shop also indicated they had trouble finding the right size straw to replace the plastic version before the ban took effect.
The change comes months after Lonely Whale led 150 businesses in the “Strawless in Seattle” campaign to remove 2.3 million straws from the city.
“We fully support the plastic ban,” said Bob Donegan. He is President of Ivar’s, a Seattle-based seafood and chowder restaurant chain. “We rely on the oceans and the sea for our fish and we don’t want plastic out there.”
Donegan told Lens he was part of the initial group that the city of Seattle reached out to 10 years ago when setting up the disposable cutlery ordinance. He said that the company showed city staff the plastics they were using and made recommendations on how to diminish and remove them.
The issue was that the state of compostable plastic a decade ago was not great, he added.
“If you put a spoon into cups of chowder it melted and would dribble chowder on you as you tried to eat it. If you tried to fork into a piece of food, the tines would break.”
The city decided to push back the ordinance’s implementation, and Ivar’s has been testing disposable cutlery and straws in its restaurants for the past decade.
Ivar’s also owns Kidd Valley Hamburgers, and one of the issues the company faced was that the thickness of the milkshakes made it difficult, if not impossible, for people to suck the contents through disposable straws. The business also investigated paper straws, however those deteriorated after being left in a milkshake for too long.
The store eventually decided to create a straw with the diameter of a dime which resolved the issue.
Donegan said Ivar’s has the benefit of being selected as one of the larger restaurants for manufacturers to bring new products. This allowed the business to test different straws or utensils before other stores had them.
He estimates that the company has tested 15 different straws over the last 5 years. Once management found a straw or cutlery that they liked, they ordered a few cases and placed them within a restaurant, unannounced.
“We let the staff and customers try it and we pay attention to what sort of comments we get,” said Donegan. “That’s how we determined that paper straws didn’t work.”
He added that one issue with the mandate is that there are very few domestic manufacturers of paper or biodegradable straws, and most are made in China. The next ship carrying compostable straws isn’t due into the Port of Seattle until July 22.
“People have been scrambling to find straws that work between the end of June into July when the distribution will come,” he said.
Another challenge with the mandate is that the 18 cent biodegradable straws cost significantly more money than the 3 cent plastic versions.
To help cut back on the additional cost, Donegan said Ivar’s will no longer be handing out straws, but will have them available on the tables, on the counter or by request.
“We always seek to minimize disposable packaging. We used to give people three or four napkins for each to-go order, now we give them one per entrée. If they want more, we are glad to give them that, but they have to ask.”
Morgan Huether, Spokeswoman for the Seattle Restaurant Alliance (SRA), told Lens that SRA cares about the environment and wants its members to comply with the law.
“We have collaborated with our members to deliver eco-friendly solutions…and worked closely with Seattle Public Utilities to provide the tools needed to comply.”
Restaurants have known that the waiver on plastic straws was not going to be renewed since last fall, so they have had ample time to look at alternatives, added Huether. The goal is to meet customer satisfaction and provide straws that are comfortable for guests and will not fall apart.
“Businesses are as unique as their owners,” she added. “Everyone has tackled it slightly differently.”
Some restaurants started developing strawless lids, while others tested different straws to see which were most effective.
“Our members have really been looking for solutions because they want to be in compliance and meet eco-friendly solutions. They are determined to find a way that is geared towards customer experience and in compliance with this law.”