United States / Analyst Insights
Public and Private Initiatives to Reduce Single-Use Plastics
by Marisa Lifschutz Analyst
Nov 20 2018

In September 2018, California became the first US state to ban full-service restaurants from automatically offering plastic straws to customers. The new regulation represents one of the latest pieces of legislation designed to limit the consumption and disposal of single-use plastic products, with regulation at the state and local levels barring products including bags, straws and cups. More broadly, these regulations are part of a wide-ranging effort by state and local governments to shift domestic environmental policy. Furthermore, these efforts have been increasingly augmented by private-sector initiatives across a diverse range of industries, from food service operations to international airlines.

State and local regulations

Aside from California’s recently passed plastic straw regulation for full-service restaurants, the state is also a leader in several other efforts to reduce single-use plastic consumption. For example, California passed Proposition 67 in November 2016, banning most retail stores from offering single-use plastic bags to customers. Instead, retailers give consumers the option of purchasing recycled paper or reusable bags, at a minimum price of $0.10 per bag. The ban, applicable to grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor stores and other retail establishments, has already produced results, with data from California Coastal Cleanup Day revealing that plastic bags accounted for 3.1% of litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, reduced by more than 50.0% from 7.4% in 2010.

Aside from California, other US cities have followed suit in pursuing more stringent environmental policies. For example, Seattle recently became the first major US city to issue a citywide ban on plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants; businesses that fail to comply are subject to fines up to $250.00. Since July 1, 2018, food service establishments in Seattle must now offer reusable or compostable utensils, straws and cocktail picks as an alternative to plastic. Similarly, in Florida, both Miami Beach and Fort Myers issued bans on plastic straws in July 2018. Furthermore, New York City has recently proposed eliminating the use of plastic straws in its food service establishments, while similar legislation has been put on the books in Hawaii and California.

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Private sector initiatives

As many local governments have become increasingly environmentally conscious, the private sector has followed suit, implementing strategic initiatives to ban the use of single-use plastic in product and service offerings. For example, operators in the Coffee and Snack Shops industry have had to adapt and develop ways to serve their beverages without the use of straws. Starbucks Corporation (Starbucks), for instance, has found a way to turn their lids into an “adult sippy cup” for their iced coffees, teas and espresso beverages after announcing its plan to eliminate plastic straws from all its locations by 2020. As the largest operator in the industry, with an estimated 20.5% market share in 2018, Starbucks’ decision represents an important directional shift for coffee shops to incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day offerings. Similarly, Dunkin’ Donuts, the largest coffee franchise operator in the United States, announced it would eliminate all polystyrene foam cups from its establishments by 2020, replacing the cups with double-walled paper cups made with Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard-certified paperboard.

Furthermore, operators in the Domestic Airlines industry have made efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastic on passenger flights and in airport lounges. For example, American Airlines Group Inc. (American Airlines), one of the largest operators in the industry with an estimated 21.3% market share in 2018, recently announced its decision to eliminate plastic straws from the company’s lounges and on-board flights, replacing them with biodegradable, eco-friendly straws and stir sticks. Furthermore, Alaska Airlines, the fifth-largest domestic carrier, announced in May 2018 its decision to eliminate the use of single-use plastic straws and citrus picks with sustainable, marine-friendly alternatives on all domestic and international flights, as well as in its airport lounges nationwide.

Lastly, operators in the Food Service Contractors industry have been quick to implement environmentally conscious changes in food service operations. For example, Compass Group PLC (Compass), the largest operator in the industry with an estimated 32.9% market share in 2018, recently announced it would ban plastic straws within its Bon Appétit Management brand. Bon Appétit Management, a provider of café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities, banned plastic straws and stirrers companywide across the brand’s 1,000 cafes and restaurants, with the phase-out expected to be complete by September 2019. Similarly, industry major player Aramark, estimated to control a 25.1% share of the market in 2018, announced its commitment to significantly reduce its use of single-use disposable plastics across the company’s global food service supply chain.  This will include the elimination of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, bags, cutlery and packaging materials used by Aramark, with the phase-out expected to be complete by 2022.

In light of these developments, environmental initiatives are poised to become increasingly important across a wide swath of industries moving forward, as a result of both strategic businesses decisions and rapidly shifting regulation.

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Edited by Sean Egan