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Seattle outlaws more plastic restaurant materials

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Restaurants in Seattle are facing $250 fines for using nonbiodegradable drink straws, cocktail picks and disposable utensils, under a ban that took effect Sunday.

Seattle restaurants were already prohibited from using polystyrene food containers.

The restrictions are intended to divert common restaurant items from landfills and oceans, where plastics can pose a danger to wildlife. 

Toward that end, restaurants are also required to provide dine-in customers with separate refuse containers for compostable and recyclable trash. They must also find garbage haulers that deliver to composting and recycling sites.

"In this instance, we had time on our side," says Jillian Henze, spokeswoman for the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, an industry trade group. "It was not a ban that came out of nowhere." 

Seattle, a city known for its progressive policies, has been striving since 2010 to eliminate the use of restaurant staples that environmentalists have blasted as ecological detriments.  Plastic straws, cocktail spears and utensils were exempted from the law by Seattle Public Utility, the government agency that oversees refuse-related matters, because operators couldn't find viable alternatives, according to Henze.

"We had a member who did a demonstration. 'Here's the soup I serve, and here's the spoon I'd have to use,'" recounts Henze. "When she put the spoon in the soup, it melted."

The exemption was renewed every September until last year, when Seattle Public Utility said its research revealed that adequate alternatives were on the market. 

The higher price typically commanded by degradable restaurant supplies was initially a concern, acknowledges Henze. But some members have found a way around it. She cites the policy of not giving any straw unless a customer requests one, a measure that lessens the impact of biodegradable versions' higher ticket.

Plus, she said, "We had since last September to seek out alternatives and test them."

She praised Seattle Public Utility for the help it provided in finding alternatives that were permissible under the new rules.

Still exempted from the ban are plastic coffee lids. 

With the latest restrictions taking effect July 1, the Washington city is believed to have the most extensive restrictions on restaurant packaging and utensils of any major city in the country.

But other areas are embracing similar bans. New York City, for instance, is giving restaurants a six-month grace period to find alternatives to polystyrene food containers before it starts fining them for using nonbiodegradable packaging. An industry group, the Restaurant Action Alliance, estimates that the change will boost costs by $11.2 million per year.

Seattle passed a law in 2010 that banned sellers of ready-to-eat foods from using materials that do not decompose, but straws, cocktail picks and disposable utensils were exempted. Restaurants that were unable to use up their supplies of plastic straws, picks and utensils by July 1 were invited to set up a depletion schedule in collaboration with authorities. 

The Seattle Restaurant Alliance has informed members that enforcement will initially focus on helping food sellers comply with the new restrictions. The law provides Seattle Public Utility, a division of the civic government, with the authority to levy $250 for each infraction.

The requirement is binding on restaurants, grocery stores, delis, coffee shops, food trucks and institutional facilities. Convenience stores are not mentioned in the requirements set out by the Seattle Public Utility. 

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