City of Austin looking at ways to cut down on single-use plastics citywide

It’s a habit that grew during COVID and has appeared to stick around, ordering food to-go.

"We used to not do a lot of to-go, but now that it’s a thing, we’re not going to eliminate it," said Simon Madera, owner of Taco Flats and eastside cocktail bar La Holly. "There’s way more to-go business coming out of your restaurants, so there’s way more plastic, there’s way more straws..."

And potentially, way more waste ending up in places it shouldn’t.

A study released by the Watershed Protection Department last month found that the most common trash discovered in local creeks was single-use plastic food and beverage items.

Last week, city council members approved a resolution to work towards reducing the use of single-use plastic citywide.

They’ll work closely with the Texas Restaurant Association to come up with strategies and work on public education campaigns.

"Restaurants can't do it alone," said Madison Gessner, executive director of the Texas Restaurant Association’s Central South Texas Region. "It’s our packaging suppliers, your delivery systems and your customers and our local government officials kind of coming together to discuss, ‘What does this look like? What are our goals and how do we get there?’"

Gessner noted that some scenarios could benefit – rather than stretch – the business.

"If instead of just including the plastic or single-use condiments in [to-go orders], they ask you first, and you have the option as a customer or a consumer to say yes or no, that can provide a cost savings for the business," she said.

This is a concept that’s already been implemented at Madera's businesses.

"We’ve been kind of working on the whole strawless-type approach for quite a bit," said Madera. 

As of Monday, he said they're also in the process of implementing the use of biodegradable, agave-made straws at La Holly.

But while they’ve been pretty plastic-conscious since day one, Madera recognized that not every business may be able to afford these kinds of moves.

"To try and get people to do it fully is really a challenge, and depending on the size of the business, some people can’t embrace that change," he said.

That’s something Gessner and her team will be taking into account.

"Biodegradable products, while really great, don't always work; sometimes they're cost prohibitive, or if you have something particularly saucy, like a barbecue item, they may not hold up," she said. "So it's about trying to find innovative solutions, so each operator can find the best way to meet this goal."

The "Trash in Creeks" study also showed that each tourist coming to Austin uses an estimated 30 plastic water bottles per person for a two-week trip. The city is now looking at potentially providing visitors to ABIA with a reusable water bottle upon arrival.

Also under consideration is banning single-use water and soft drink bottles at city-owned facilities.