Last year we celebrated as New Jersey passed into law one of the strongest bans on single-use disposables in the country (P.L. 2020, c. 117). We've been counting down the days until the law goes into effect. On November 4, the "straws by request" provision went live. Under these requirements, food service businesses will only offer single-use plastic straws to customers if they specifically request one.
While this might seem like a very minor change, "straws by request" policies can drastically reduce the number of straws used and thrown out. For example, one restaurant that participated in a voluntary "straws by request" campaign through Clean Water Action's ReThink Disposable program reduced total straw use by 90% - preventing more than 160 pounds of plastic waste annually. By opting to embrace a "by request" practice, the restaurant also saved an estimated $2,000 annually.
Plastic straws are one of the top ten marine debris items found in litter clean-ups and that's just what escapes the waste stream. It is estimated that the U.S. consumes 500 million straws a day; that's over 182 million straws a year. End to end, straws used daily in the U.S. could circle the planet more than two-and-a-half times. While this is only a fraction of the harmful plastic pollution that exists, "straws by request" policies are good way to reintroduce a "take only what you need" attitude toward single-use disposables.
New Jersey's new straw policy will not solve the fossil-fueled climate and plastics crisis, but it will bring greater attention to our systems of waste that are so pervasive they show up in our most basic behaviors - like drinking a glass of water. The "by request" law will bring this to the attention of every single person in the state each time we order a beverage and will help change our "throw away" attitutdes. Once we have a stronger sense of responsibility for our own personal habit changes we can better realize our collective responsibility for the systemic changes needed to restore a healthy environment.
In anticipation of this new law, some restaurants replaced plastic straws with paper straws. While the new law only applies to plastic straws, it is important for restaurant operators to switch to "by request" for all straws, even for paper. Restaurants serving paper straws will be in compliance with the law but will miss out on all the benefits of reducing single-use. Instead of purchasing more expensive paper straws, restaurants should reduce overall straw use by embracing "by request". This will prevent waste, save money, engage customers in habit changes, and ensure that plastic straws are still available for people who truly need them.
If you are a restaurant operator, it helps to display clear signage (like the example below) to gently remind your customers of your new policy. If you are a customer visiting a restaurant, it helps to give your servers a friendly reminder of the new law. Remember, we are all in this together making changes for a healthier environment. Patience and mutual support go a long way!