“Skip the Stuff” Laws Aim to Get Rid of Takeout Trash
Every order of takeout comes with a side of single-use plastics and each plastic fork, knife, spoon, straw and condiment packet — whether or not you wanted it or used it — ends up in the trash.
New research found that 139 million metric tons of single-use plastic waste was generated in 2021— six million metric tons more single-use plastics compared to 2019. A hunger for takeout meals that skyrocketed during the pandemic contributed to the surge.
An estimated 60 percent of Americans order takeout or delivery at least once a week and online ordering is growing 300 percent faster than in-house dining; that means millions of single-use plastic utensils and condiment packets are going out with every order.
“The pandemic increased our use of single-use plastics and made the problem worse,” says Alexis Goldsmith, national organizing director for Beyond Plastics.
New legislation aims to address the problem.
Some of the recent bills are thanks to The National Reuse Network, part of the environmental nonprofit Upstream, which launched a national Skip the Stuff campaign to enact policies that require restaurants to include single-use plastic utensils, straws, condiments and napkins only when customers request them.
The bills, sometimes called Cut out Cutlery or Accessories Available Upon Request, also require meal delivery and online apps like Uber Eats, GrubHub and Door Dash to add single-use extras to their menus; customers can choose the items and quantities to have them included in the order. Customers that don’t order the single-use plastics won’t receive them.
The goal of the legislation is to reduce the 40 billion plastic utensils sent to the landfill every year.
“Most of the time, people are taking food home or to their offices where there are reusable utensils and condiments in larger bottles so these utensils wind up in a drawer or get thrown out,” says Goldsmith. “Some people do need utensils and that’s why you can request to have them with the Skip the Stuff model, but for the most part, they’re not needed.”
To date, Skip the Stuff bills have been passed in several cities, including Denver, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. California and Washington State passed statewide legislation that makes single-use plastic “accessories” available with takeout orders only upon request. In January, New York City became the latest city to pass Skip the Stuff legislation.
Organizations like Upstream, Beyond Plastics and NRDC have created toolkits with model legislation to help additional communities launch their own Skip the Stuff campaigns.
Appetite for Change
A 2022 poll found that 88 percent of people in 28 countries (including 55 percent of Americans) believe single-use plastics should be banned. Concerns about waste, fossil fuels used in plastics manufacturing and the potential impact of microplastics on human health have led to a demand for regulations to curb their use; nevertheless, there is more plastic being generated than ever before.
“There was a lot of momentum [on] this topic and an appetite for pursuing policy,” says Macy Zander, reuse communities policy and engagement officer at Upstream.
Focusing on the single-use plastics included with takeout seemed like a simple place to start. Takeout trash epitomizes the problem of single-use plastics; these convenience items can be useful in certain scenarios but, Goldsmith notes, the single-use plastics become ubiquitous and leave consumers with little control over how much plastic they toss.
“The market is just flooded with plastics and plastic packaging. In the case of takeout, the only choice the consumer can really make is to just not order, which hurts businesses,” she says. “Legislation is better because it gives the consumer more control over how much plastic they’re using.”
It wasn’t just consumer demand that helped get skip the stuff legislation passed; restaurants, foodservice businesses and regional and state restaurant associations supported the legislation too.
In Alhambra, California, the California Restaurant Association spoke up in favor of a Skip the Stuff bill, submitting a comment to City Council that said, “The restaurant community shares the ongoing concern over unnecessary use of single-use products…We look forward to continuing to work with the city on the proposed food accessories upon request ordinance.”
New York City recently passed Skip the Stuff legislation and Council Member Marjorie Velazquez, the bill’s prime sponsor, received favorable feedback from local restaurants.
“Oftentimes, businesses find themselves spending excess money on disposables and unused condiments, so incorporating a simple, ‘Would you like a fork and napkin?’ or ‘Would you like ketchup or dipping sauce?’ will make a difference in financials for the business,” Velazquez says.
Tackling Single-Use Plastics, One Bite at a Time
While the bills are too new to generate robust data on their impacts, online delivery service Postmates reported it had saved 122 million packages of plastic cutlery from going to the landfill since joining the #CutOutCutlery campaign in 2019. By their estimates, the campaigns also saved restaurants an estimated $3.2 million.
Velazquez believes the legislation will put New York City on the path to meet its zero-waste-to-landfill goals by 2030 and help the nation curb its single-use plastics waste.
“If the nation sees 100 million single-use plastics used daily, I can only imagine what percentage of that comes from large municipalities like ours,” she says. “By taking small steps like this, New York City will reduce its carbon footprint [and] if we can educate our communities and businesses on alternatives to single-use plastics, our planet and our future will be much brighter.”
Successful Skip the Stuff policies can make a dent in reducing single-use plastics but the legislation is just one piece of what must be a multi-pronged approach. Additionally, not all proposed legislation is successful in getting passed.
In 2022, proposed Skip the Stuff legislation failed in Colorado and the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, proposed federal legislation introduced in 2021 that set forth a goal of phasing out single-use plastic products, including plastic utensils, with a proposed implementation date of January 1, 2023 but the legislation remains in limbo.
Goldsmith remains optimistic that Skip the Stuff legislation is the right path for single-used plastics reductions.
“These types of single use plastics…are most likely to become debris in the environment so reducing them at the source is really important,” she says. “Legislation is the best way to go because consumer brands and industries are not going to change their ways unless they are required to. We need to go further in eliminating single use plastics but this is a first step.”
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Top photo by Samarra Khaja/FoodPrint.