There’s a new (plastic) target on the block for Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal, otherwise known as the guy who introduced a ban on plastic straws in NYC last year. Today, Espinal introduced legislation that would lead to the eventual ban of disposable plastics like restaurant takeout cutlery.
The bill wouldn’t actually ban the cutlery itself. Rather, it would require the city to “review items made with single use plastics at least annually and ban those items for which reasonable alternatives are available.” That task would fall to the NYC department of Consumer Affairs, along with the department of Sanitation and the department of Environmental Protection.
From the legislation text:
The commissioner shall on February 1, 2020, and annually thereafter, report to the mayor and the speaker of the city council on single use plastic items considered, the evaluation including economic feasibility and environmental effectiveness, and the determinations.
Only after these areas are evaluated and a suitable replacement found would the ban on the actual plastic item, cutlery or otherwise, go into effect. Which sounds nice and orderly on paper but would in reality take a long time to go into effect — years, in fact.
Still, the proposed legislation continues the conversation around what to do about the amount of single-use plastic that goes into the trash. Investor Rob Kaplan of Circulate Capital, whose work is heavily involved in the environment, put it well last year when he told National Geographic: “There’s no silver bullet to stop plastic pollution. We’re not going to be able to recycle our way out of the problem, and we’re not going to be able to reduce our way out of the problem,” adding that we have to pursue both tracks while continuing to seek other solutions to make any sort of dent.
In the world of single-use plastics, particularly those at restaurants, Espinal’s legislation is aimed at finding those other solutions. How challenging that would be remains a question mark. Nix a plastic straw and your beverages are still drinkable; nix a plastic spoon, and you’ll have to get creative about how to eat that cup of mashed potatoes from the diner.
There’s also the question of what “reasonable alternative” would actually entail. The legislation discusses “economic feasibility” and “environmental feasibility,” but doesn’t point to specific materials that could replace plastic. There are a number of plastic alternatives when it comes to things like cutlery, from wood to vegetable starch and other plant-based materials. But again, there’s the economic factors to consider, and the proposed legislation text only says economic feasibility includes “direct and avoided costs such as whether the material is capable of being collected by the department in the same truck as source separated metal, glass and plastic recyclable material, and shall include consideration of markets for recycled material.”
We saw a number of private companies rally last year by banning plastic straws, or at least kickstarting the process to ban them. If Espinal’s new legislation were to be effective, it would need to happen in tandem with another massive effort on the part of companies like Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, and others to ban single-use items like cutlery, plastic bags, and other eating items. In this to-go-obsessed culture, that could be a huge ask.
So maybe it’s time for the delivery companies themselves to get involved. Ever the skeptic, I have my doubts this would ever happen. But companies like Grubhub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash are wielding a massive influence over U.S. culture at the moment. It would be nice to think they could use that influence (and money) to show the rest of us how to creatively counter the craze for single-use plastics.