People dining out or going out for drinks in Portland must learn to ask their server if they want a plastic straw.
Starting next July, Portland is set to become a "by-request" city when it comes to distributing plastic straws, or plastic drink stirrers, at restaurants, bars and takeout establishments.
The Portland City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday for a new ordinance that seeks to sharply restrict the use of throwaway plastics at eating and drinking establishments. Though the ordinance will require a second vote before it's formally adopted, that's highly likely after the council held a hearing on the proposal Wednesday and there was nobody opposed. Even the state restaurant and lodging lobby representative endorsed the ordinance.
"The only criticism I've heard about this policy so far is it doesn't go far enough," said Mayor Ted Wheeler, who first introduced the idea last spring.
The move responds to an international campaign to "ban the straw," which has become a potent symbol of all the plastic garbage that winds up littering our rivers and winding up in the oceans, where it can endanger wildlife that ingests the little plastic bits.
Wheeler asked city staff last spring to research the idea of banning plastic straws, and related throwaway plastics, and reach out to people with disabilities as well as restaurants, among others. The result was a more nuanced policy that doesn't go as far as some cities, but goes farther in some respects.
Portland opted for a "by-request" policy rather than an outright ban, in large part to address concerns that some people with disabilities or recovering from injuries require straws to drink.
But Portland nixed the idea of allowing compostable plastic straws, as permitted by some other cities. That's because they take so long to break down in the environment that they aren't suitable for use in gardening and other landscape treatments, and thus aren't permitted in city compost bins.
The Portland ordinance also goes further than plastic straws and stirrers. When the ordinance takes effect in July, restaurant and bar servers also must ask their Portland customers if they want plastic utensils and single-serving condiments — think those little bags filled with catsup, mustard and mayonnaise — before giving them out, including to-go orders.
And the requirements will apply to public schools, hospitals and other institutional cafeterias.
There won't be any limits on plastic lids for drinks, as there's no good alternatives widely available — yet.
So far, about 120 private businesses, including Widmer Brothers brewing, prominent restaurants and and the Portland Spirit tourist boat company, have responded to the "Ditch the Straw" campaign led by the Surfrider Foundation, a surfer group that advocates for ocean conservation and environmental protections.
Businesses are finding that the new policy can save them money.
Portland Spirt has avoided the need to supply 8,000 to 10,000 straws so far, said Nancy Nordman, coordinator of the Portland Ditch the Straw campaign. The ¿Por Qué No? Taquerias have reduced their use of plastic straws from 4,000 a month to 1,000 a month, she told the council.
Some companies have started offering bamboo straws or metal straws with silicone tips, while some Portlanders have taken to carrying around reusable straws when they go out.
The staff from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability did not evaluate those alternatives, noting that each one comes with different environmental impacts, and may in fact lead to greater carbon emissions than the use of plastic straws.
"You're looking at using a massive amount of resources in a different way," testified Pete Chism-Winfield, a sustainability bureau waste specialist who helped draft the policy. City staff concluded that the best way to lower the environmental impact is to reduce the need to produce the products. For example, it was pointed out that people getting takeout food often are laden with plastic cutlery and condiments right before they take their meals home, where they have reusable cutlery and big jars of condiments.
Amy Rathfelder, Wheeler's environmental policy analyst, said the world is clearly moving in the direction of alternatives to the use of plastic straws and other throwaway items.
Wheeler stressed that this is just one of many ways to cut down on plastic trash in the environment.
"We are clearly on a path to eliminating single-use plastics," he said. "This is our first line in the sand."
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will commence an outreach campaign in January to educate eateries and other food and drink establishments about the new ordinance requirements. The Multnomah County Health Department, which inspects restaurants, has agreed to educate businesses about the new requirements.
Levying penalties for those who flout the rules will be a "last resort" for enforcement, Chism-Winfield said.
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