You soon won’t be able to expect a server to give you a straw for your drink in Portland, Oregon – unless you ask for one first.
Portland City Councilors on Wednesday approved an ordinance that implements a by-request-only policy for plasticware for dine-in, delivery and takeout orders starting July 2019.
That means what was once a given at restaurants and dining establishments now needs to be requested: Instead of sitting down and automatically getting a straw with your glass of water, for example, you’ll need to ask your server for one.
And at the drive-thru, restaurant employees will need to ask customers if they need condiment packets, utensils or plasticware like plastic straws and stirrers.
To be clear: it’s not an outright ban on straws, though the city did consider that. The brains behind the legislation say they made a conscious effort not to do that after conversations with members of the community – namely, the disability rights community. The idea, though, is to get people to think twice about plastic consumption.
“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," said Pete Chism-Winfield, program specialist with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
"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.”
What Is Portland Actually Doing?
The city is making it so that all retail food and beverage establishments will only give customers plasticware after a customer asks for it. And for customers getting takeout, plasticware will only be provided after employees ask customers if they need it.
The city simply wants to get people to think twice about whether or not they need to use disposable plasticware when they order food.
“We want to really be able to break out of the status quo mold of automatically expecting to have plasticware or plastic straws every time we sit down at a restaurant and order a soft drink or order a cocktail,” said Amy Rathfelder, an environmental and sustainability policy advisor to Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“We want to just sort of break out of that thinking and start to change the dynamic. Because ultimately, as we consider the larger impacts of climate change and the small steps we’re going to need to take to reduce its effects, this is one of them.”
Can I Still Get A Straw In Portland?
“This is not a ban,” Rathfelder said. “This is just a repurposing of the way that we use and have these materials available.”
The city did initially consider an outright ban. Following conversations with people with disabilities, policymakers changed their minds.
“What we heard from them is that accessibility through the tool of the plastic straw is a very, very important thing,” Chism-Winfield said. “And if that tool is something that they need, we want to make sure it’s still available.”
The ordinance passed by city councilors Wednesday replaces current city code that already bans plastic checkout bags and foam food containers with broader prohibitions and restrictions on single-use plastics.
The ordinance on single-use plastics condenses disposable materials – plastic bags, plastic straws and foam containers – to one section of city code.
It’s in the same vein as the plastic bag ban — but again, it’s not a ban.
The city sees straws as a low hanging target in its effort around waste reduction.
The city is also joining a wave of efforts happening around the country around straws. (Seattle, for example, passed an outright ban on straws.)
“It’s a great first gateway item for consumers to understand what their plastic consumption looks like,” Rathfelder said. “It’s a great place to start because it’s relatively easy to remove and find alternative solutions for.”
Social pressure surrounding a viral video of a turtle with a straw lodged in its nose also played a part. And in the summer of 2017, the Surfrider Foundation launched the Ditch the Straw PDX campaign, specifically focused on reducing plastic waste in Portland and starting with the plastic straw.
Charlie Plybon is the Oregon policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, which focuses on environmental protections for the world’s oceans.
According to Plybon, single-use plastics show up over and over again in ocean cleanup efforts, including those at Oregon’s coasts. The foundation worked with the city on the ordinance. He said the policy gained traction among members of the environmental activist and business communities.
“We really feel the Portland business community has embraced this policy and has really been a partner in helping develop the policy," he said.
The Portland Business Alliance, which represents hundreds of businesses throughout the city, sent a letter to Mayor Ted Wheeler in September declaring its support for the policy. The Surfrider Foundation worked with about 100 businesses through its Portland chapter to pilot the policy voluntarily.
“We saw huge savings for businesses, both in the amount of straws they were putting out there but also in financial savings,” Plybon said.
Portland restaurant Por Que No, for example, reported using 32,000 fewer straws a month between two restaurant locations, based on an ask-upon-request policy, according to Plybon.
“Multiply that out times hundreds and hundreds of restaurants in Portland, we’re talking about eliminating millions of single-use plastics from our environment.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Por Que No's monthly straw usage numbers.