Plastics ban clears Atlanta City Council committee

An Atlanta City Council committee voted unanimously in favor of a ban of non-compostable single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam used to serve food at city buildings and at the world’s busiest airport.

However, the proposed ordinance would allow for a year to pass before it takes effect, and even then it will apply only to businesses on new city contracts struck after the effective date and to city purchases.

“This is not revolutionary. This is frankly about being responsible,” said Atlanta City Council member Amir Farokhi, who proposed the legislation approved by the city utilities committee Tuesday. “This is the city kind of catching up where a lot of consumer demand is.”

If passed by an additional committee and the full council Monday, the ban would take effect on or before Dec. 31, 2020, and apply to city-run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where a number of airport restaurant contracts are set to be rebid. Hartsfield-Jackson already has some requirements for airport restaurants to use compostable materials.

Concessions contracts struck before the effective date would not fall under the ban, and some contracts are up to 10 years long — meaning a city ban may not be fully enforced at the airport for years.

Farokhi said the ordinance is intended to make the change over the long term. “This is ultimately about the city doing its part to reduce demand for non-renewable resources,” he said.

The proposed city ordinance would leave specifics on what plastic items are prohibited up to the city’s chief resilience officer, who would write the actual regulations and define the “non-compostable single-use serviceware” to be banned. It’s yet to be seen, for example, whether that would include plastic forks.

An earlier version of legislation was introduced in August, but was put on hold for months as officials worked through complications of the ban and its ramifications.

The exemption for current city contracts in the new version developed by Farokhi and council member Carla Smith is aimed at preventing the city from being sued or incurring costs for adding new restrictions to existing contracts.

The legislation includes a carve-out for disposable flexible plastic drinking straws to make them available upon request in addition to compostable straws, according to Farokhi — including for those who need flexible straws due to a medical or physical condition.

The plastics ban would not apply to those with city permits and licenses including vendors at festivals and City Hall events.

The city utilities committee also voted unanimously in favor of a resolution asking the city’s resilience office to pursue partnerships with companies to encourage them to phase out non-compostable single-use serviceware.

“It’s not a heavy hand, it’s a light push… whether it’s Target or Kroger or a stadium,” Farokhi said.

However, some warned that Atlanta lacks a commercial composting facility to handle the items that replace plastic. Hartsfield-Jackson has been working to develop a composting and recycling facility called Green Acres on its property, but the project has been delayed for years.

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

“Will this legislation actually reduce waste, or simply result in replacing one type of waste with another?” asked Sydney Rubin of the Georgia Chemistry Council representing the plastics industry. She also said “alternatives to single use plastics can be more expensive, almost double the cost.”

In public comments at the meeting, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said trash gets into the river, and “the most common things that we find are straws, cups, plastic bags, bottles, utensils and Styrofoam trays.”

Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, told the committee that plastic bags “break down into smaller and smaller pieces” in the environment. She said she hopes the plastics ordinance would encourage the use of more reusable cups and straws.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, has been working to gradually cut the use of plastic straws, stir sticks, wrappers and utensils on flights and in its airport Sky Clubs, and a Delta lobbyist told the committee the airline supports the proposed ordinance and efforts "to make the city of Atlanta and the airport as sustainable as possible."

However, the legislation is written to not apply to airlines’ in-flight service nor to Delta Air facilities at the airport.