In War on Plastic Waste, New York City Council Strikes a Blow
New legislation will prevent large volumes of mostly plastic, unrecyclable waste from being generated by take-out food orders in the nation’s largest city.
The New York City Council has passed, and Mayor Eric Adams has signed, legislation that will prevent large volumes of mostly plastic, unrecyclable waste from being generated by take-out food orders in the nation’s largest city.
Specifically, the new statute, Local Law 17 of 2023, directs restaurants and other food service establishments to provide plastic utensils, plates, cups, condiment packets, and napkins to take-out customers only “on request.”
More than 20,000 tons of plastic foodware are discarded annually in New York City, according to the Department of Sanitation. Most of this waste ends up in environmentally problematic incinerators or landfills, or as litter on city streets and beaches or in parks and waterways.
Single-use plastic products, such as throwaway cutlery, are made from fossil fuels. And fossil fuels create environmental and public health problems at every stage of their existence, from extraction and transportation to manufacture and disposal. The fossil fuel industry sees such plastics as a major profit center (especially important as motor vehicles transition away from petroleum to electric propulsion). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that worldwide plastic production will triple by 2060.
New York’s new “Skip the Stuff” legislation is one of many steps needed to begin reversing this trend. Its enactment is also good news for everyone who has a kitchen drawer filled with unwanted plastic forks and packets of ketchup and duck sauce and feels guilty about throwing them away and creating more waste.
Passage of the legislation was spearheaded by New York City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, who chairs the council’s Consumer and Worker Protection Committee, and Council Member Erik Bottcher. The bill sailed through the council by a vote of 43 to 7.
On the day of the bill’s passage, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called the Skip the Stuff bill “a great example of smart, green policy that will allow us to reduce waste and help our city’s small businesses save on costs.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz—who successfully cosponsored similar legislation in his city in 2021—stated that California restaurants that switched to a “utensils on request” policy had already saved between $3,000 and $21,000 per year.
The New York City bill, which goes into effect this coming summer, had essential support from the New York City Hospitality Alliance, the city’s leading restaurant and nightlife organization. Its executive director, Andrew Rigie, participated in the negotiations leading to the development of the legislation.
New York’s action is just the latest example of the broader movement to cut back on the ever-growing volume of throwaway plastics so as to protect public health, wildlife, and the climate from the impacts of oil and gas production.
For example, New York now joins other cities (e.g., Chicago, Denver), states (e.g., California, Washington State), and countries (e.g., Canada, England) that have adopted legislation restricting the distribution of plastic utensils or directing restaurants to provide them only upon request. In recent years, New York City and State have passed laws prohibiting other throwaway plastics, including polystyrene foam food and beverage containers, plastic carryout bags, individual-size toiletry bottles in hotels, and plastics stirrers and straws.
Of course, more comprehensive steps are needed to bend the curve on worldwide plastics consumption. Among other things, government at all levels must launch far more ambitious initiatives to encourage waste prevention and reuse.
Still, measures to restrict throwaway plastics—which account for as much as 45 percent of all plastics production, according to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—are a welcome step in the right direction.
Indeed, legislation that would install a Skip the Stuff approach across New York State has recently been reintroduced by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and State Senator Rachel May. And legislation that would effectively cut back on plastic packaging, sometimes referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility, has been recently introduced by State Senator Peter Harckham.
In Congress, Senator Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (California) have introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. It is almost certainly the most comprehensive piece of federal legislation ever advanced to protect communities across the country (and the planet) from the adverse impacts of plastic production. Significantly, it recognizes the disproportionate environmental justice considerations involved in this issue, as industrial plastic production and waste disposal facilities are frequently located in low-income and Black and brown communities.
But with congressional action unlikely in the short term, it is up to enlightened officials in state and local governments to pick up the baton and lead the nation in reversing the burgeoning growth of climate-destroying throwaway plastics.