LA County Bans Single-Use Plastic for Restaurants, Food Trucks, Cafeterias

The ordinance mandates recyclable, compostable, and reusable foodwares.

waiter carries tray with food in reusable dishes


Los Angeles County has approved an ordinance that will restrict single-use plastics in restaurants, stores, food trucks, and hospital cafeterias. According to the new rules, which come into effect on May 1, 2023, all single-use food wares will need to be fully recyclable or compostable, unless it's a dine-in establishment, in which case the dishes and cutlery must be reusable. Expanded polystyrene products in the form of coolers, cups, and plates will be banned.

It's a bold step toward reducing plastic waste that gets at the root of the issue. Packaging represents by far the largest proportion of global plastic waste, around 40% or between 141 and 161 million tonnes discarded annually. In the U.S. an estimated 23% of waste in landfill is made up of containers and packaging, much of which was used for food. Packaging also comprises the majority of trash found along beaches and coastlines. The problem has worsened since the start of the pandemic, with the use of takeout food containers growing by 250-300%.

The ordinance, which has been in the works since 2019, only takes effect in unincorporated areas of the county but still applies to over 1 million residents, which amounts to meaningful change—not to mention setting an example for the rest of the state and nation. As county supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a statement, quoted by the LA Times, "Today's action is a major step forward in reducing our reliance on plastics and reducing its harm to human and marine health. It's time we put a fork in our use of plastics and took a bite out of the overwhelming amount of plastic county residents needlessly use."

Food facilities operating in permanent locations will have a year to figure out how to introduce the new and improved packaging. Food trucks have until November 1, 2023, and farmers' markets, catering companies, and temporary food facilities get an extra year, till May 1, 2024. Once it kicks in, fines will be $100 per day of violation, up to a total of $1,000 per year. The LA Times reported, "In the meantime, the county will begin a yearlong outreach and education campaign to help restaurants and businesses adjust to the changes." 

reusable coffee cup beneath an espresso machine

Thurtell / Getty Images

Despite this promise of support, many businesses are not happy. Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, told Grist that he feared costs would go up for small business owners, as reusable and compostable packaging tends to be more expensive than conventional. The county appears to be sensitive to this, saying that if small restaurants can demonstrate financial hardship, they may qualify for an exemption. Street vendors are also exempt.

Environmental groups counter by pointing out that the cleanup and health-related costs incurred by plastic pollution are not being factored in. Christy Leavitt of Oceana said that California already spends $420 million "to keep plastic away from waterways, beaches, and the ocean." Maybe if the state didn't need to spend so much on that, there could be some leftover funds to help subsidize businesses to make the transition to better packaging.

The ordinance is predicted to improve environmental and public health for many residents. Alison Waliszewski and Emily Parker, co-chairs of Reusable LA, an environmental advocacy group, told CBS, "This ordinance is a critical stepping stone to reducing pollution and moving towards a thriving culture of reuse, and we applaud the County for its leadership in reducing harmful plastic waste."

Hopefully, the ordinance will also spur food manufacturers and suppliers to rethink their packaging, so as to make them more attractive to retailers. And once that becomes standard practice for a particular region, it's easier to replicate elsewhere.

A "thriving culture of reuse" sounds like a Treehugger dream come true, and we hope sincerely it plays out that way. Swapping all the plastic for paper-based disposables could create another host of sustainability issues, so we do hope people take the reusables seriously. It will require a shift in consumer culture—namely, a willingness to slow down, to sit and eat meals at a table, instead of taking them to go all the time, but that's not a bad thing.

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