Environmental groups are asking Uber and other food delivery services to require customers to "opt in" for single-use plastic utensils and paper napkins.
A July 16 letter from Beyond Plastics and 120 other groups comes a few days after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that local governments there could again start banning or restricting plastic bags, reversing a decision he had made early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The two moves may be signaling that concerns over plastics and packaging waste are returning, following an easing on regulations when COVID-19 first began to spread.
The environmental groups' letter to the food delivery services, for example, argues that the surge in takeout orders during COVID-19 is creating more packaging waste and environmental litter.
The groups also told the delivery firms, which also included Grubhub, DoorDash and Delivery.com, that their idea could save restaurants money.
"Takeout orders are up all over the country as a result of the COVID pandemic," said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastic and a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration. "Committing to make this small change to their delivery ordering systems would help reduce single-use packaging and save restaurants a bit of money."
Uber responded on Twitter that it already did as the environmental groups wanted, saying it “couldn’t agree more” with them. A tweet from a spokeswoman's account said it made opting in for single-use plastics standard on its app in September 2019.
But Enck said Uber needs to emphasize that to restaurants, who often add those things whether the customer wants them or not.
“Many restaurants do not comply and automatically add a boatload of utensils, napkins, straws and condiments with each order,” she said. “We requested an opportunity to discuss this disconnect with Uber.”
The groups, including Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and Surfrider Foundation, argue that takeout items like plastic utensils and straws consistently rank near the top of items found at beach cleanups.
Their push on food delivery services comes a few days after state officials in Massachusetts formally ended the temporary limits they had placed on local plastic bag laws and on reusable bags, which they had put in place in March when COVID-19 was first spreading in the United States.
In effect, the July 10 announcement from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health means that the 139 cities and towns in the state with local plastics fees and bans can now reinstate them.
Environmental groups praised the decision, while some business organizations said it was announced too suddenly and would put retail employees and cashiers in the uncomfortable position of having to tell customers they have to again pay for bags.
"It's bad enough that store workers have to enforce mask-wearing," the Newton Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce said. "Requiring cashiers to be the ones who inform customers this week that they have to pay for bags again, is just cruel."
The chamber said it wanted more time for businesses to use up their existing stocks of plastic bags.
But the environmental group Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group welcomed allowing reusable bags and letting cities bring back local plastic bag laws, saying it reflected updated knowledge about how the virus spreads, primarily person to person.
"This is a home run — good for the environment, for public health, for reducing waste and for protecting both workers and shoppers," said Executive Director Janet Domenitz.
One group said scientific research about the virus supports the state decision.
"Experts from around the world have stated that no known cases of COVID-19 have been linked to any surface, including reusable bags," said Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. "When the governor issued this order, we didn't have this information. Now we know single-use bags, cups and food ware are not going to protect us from COVID-19."
Industry groups, however, have argued that bans are a public safety risk.
In a March letter to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the Plastics Industry Association pointed to studies showing reusable bags harboring bacteria and viruses, and it urged federal officials to make statements supporting the health benefits of single-use packaging.