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Q&A: Seattle’s plastic straw ban now in effect; here’s what you need to know

Standing on the deck of the Greenpeace ice breaker last month, Arctic Sunrise, Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, displays a straw that reads, “SAVE THE SEA, BE PLASTIC STRAW FREE.” Effective July 1, plastic straws and utensils will be prohibited in Seattle because they are not recyclable. (Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times)
Standing on the deck of the Greenpeace ice breaker last month, Arctic Sunrise, Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, displays a straw that reads, “SAVE THE SEA, BE PLASTIC STRAW FREE.” Effective July 1, plastic straws and utensils will be prohibited in Seattle because they are not recyclable. (Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times)

As of Sunday, drinks in Seattle will come strawless — unless you request one, in which case you’ll find a compostable straw in your glass. The city’s 5,000 restaurants cannot provide customers plastic straws or utensils. Seattle is believed to be the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils in food service.

Here’s what you need to know about the new law.

Q: Why did Seattle ban single-use plastic straws and utensils?

A: The city hopes to decrease plastic waste and encourage conversation about environmental conservation. The 150 businesses participating in “Strawless in Seattle,” a campaign led by Lonely Whale Foundation, prevented 2.3 million plastic straws from entering the waste system last September alone.

Q: What is banned?

A: Food service businesses are no longer able to provide plastic straws and utensils — including forks, spoons, knives, and cocktail picks. Instead, on request, they may provide approved compostable alternatives for dine-in service, and compostable or recyclable take-out packaging. Though compostable plastic straws are allowed, environmental groups advocate using compostable paper-based straws. Counted among food service businesses are restaurants, delis, coffee shops, food trucks, cafeterias, and grocery stores.

Q: When does the ban take effect?

A: Businesses were expected to use existing inventory of plastic utensils and straws before July 1. Those that could not can contact Seattle Public Utilities to discuss “a compliance schedule.”

This ban comes a decade after the city first adopted an ordinance in 2008 to require that all one-time-use food service items be recyclable or compostable.

The use of Styrofoam packaging in food service was banned in 2009. Food service businesses were required to use compostable or recyclable food serviceware in 2010, provide recycling and compost bins, and sign up for collection service. Seattle Public Utilities exempted plastic utensils and straws due to a lack of compostable alternatives. Now that the market has caught up, that exemption is expiring at the end of June.

Q: What is not covered?

A: Flexible plastic straws can be provided to customers who need a straw because of medical reasons.

Q: What happens if businesses don’t comply?

A: They may face a fine of up to $250. However, Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman Ellen Pepin-Cato said that the focus this upcoming year will be on “continuing outreach and assistance to businesses to help them come into compliance, rather than enforcement.”


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