Restaurant owners could get slapped with a $500 fine for giving customers plastic cutlery or straws, thanks to a new city ordinance Portland city councilors approved yesterday. Starting July 1, 2019, restaurant employees must ask customers if they’d like disposable silverware before throwing it in the to-go bag, or the restaurant may get stung with a nasty fine.
Portland city councilors specifically updated the previous ordinance that banned plastic single-use bags back in 2013; because this straw restriction is looped into the older ordinance, they share the same fine levels: Restaurants will be issued a written warning after the first accidental fork; they’ll be fined $100 for the second within the year, $200 for the third, and $500 for any after those first three.
“These plastics are cheap and a lot of businesses have made it a point to just include them in whatever order is happening for food and drink – and that is the default,” Pete Chism-Winfield, program specialist with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “So what we’re trying to do with this policy is reset the default that doesn’t include all these different plastics that may or may not be needed, and give the consumer an opportunity to make that decision themselves.”
It’s important to note that this isn’t an outright ban on plastic straws or silverware, like the city ban on single-use plastic bags at retail stores and groceries. When banning plastic straws became the surprising cause celebre over the summer, several disability rights activists challenged the idea of a straw ban, saying paper and metal straws can be inaccessible to those who need them due to limited jaw control or other mobility challenges. In the case of Portland’s ordinance, the people who need or like plastic straws should still be able to get them — assuming restaurants continue to keep them in stock. Several restaurants have voluntarily opted out of the plastic straw game, sticking to paper straws and other alternatives.
The main argument for a straw restriction comes down to its impact on pollution and animal safety: According to the ordinance, plastic straws are the “sixth most frequently occurring litter in the United States,” and they’re often spotted in the stomachs of sea turtles and ocean birds. There’s also the issue of microplastics, or the particles of broken-down straws and bags that end up killing coral and steeping our seafood with carcinogenic bisphenol-A (BPA), a byproduct of disintegrating plastic. Even so, some activists roll their eyes at plastic straw policy, talking about the larger impact of abandoned fishing nets on ocean plastic buildup, or calling it a distraction from the battle for larger environmental causes, like a carbon emissions tax.
Interestingly enough, some restaurants have already adopted this sort of policy: Taqueria Por Que No used 32,000 fewer straws each month after adopting an ask-first plastics policy. That could be cheaper in the long run for restaurants — and a small step toward a plastic-free ocean.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Por Que No is using 32,000 fewer straws between its two restaurants. A previous version of this story listed the number reduced weekly.
• City council ordinance [Official]
• Single-use plastic bag ban [City of Portland]
• Why Starbucks, Disney, and the EU are all shunning plastic straws [Vox]
• Carbon taxes could make significant dent in climate change, study finds [MIT]
• The Last Straw [Eater]
• Understanding Plastic Pollution [For a Strawless Ocean]
• Some Portland Restaurants and Bars Won’t Serve Drinks With Plastic Straws Any Longer [EPDX]
• Why the World Is Hating on Plastic Straws Right Now [E]
• Trendy bans on plastic straws are mostly bunk [Chicago Tribune]
• Want A Straw For Your Drink In Portland? You’ll Have To Ask. [OPB]