Regulating by Way of Straws

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California legislator proposes regulating straw use in certain restaurants to reduce plastic waste.

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Americans each day use 500 million plastic straws, according to some estimates. Overall, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic—and counting—have amassed in the ocean, where they harm animal life and may threaten the fisheries and marine ecosystems on which humans depend.

California Assembly Member Ian Calderon (D-Calif.) has recently started an effort aimed at slowing down the accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean. In mid-January, Calderon introduced a bill in the California State Assembly that would prevent dine-in restaurants from supplying patrons with plastic straws unless they ask.

Calderon explained that his “straws-upon-request” bill would seek “to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans.”

Calderon stated that if a customer at a restaurant must ask for a straw, the customer might begin to wonder why the server did not provide a straw in the first place. Perhaps a brief conversation might ensue between the customer and the server about the environmental impacts related to the use of plastic straws, Calderon suggests.

Not everyone agrees, however. Calderon’s bill has faced some resistance from the general public.

Opponents criticize the bill’s “granular” focus on straws, saying they would rather see the state legislature focus on more pressing issues than regulating the use of something as minor as plastic straws.

Calderon insists that the bill’s focus is not actually “granular” because of the broad environmental impact of straws. He notes that plastic waste travels to the oceans, gets ingested by fish, and then gets consumed by the people who eat those fish. “We are essentially poisoning ourselves,” he asserts.

In an essay recently published in Reason, Christian Britschgi, one of Calderon’s critics, disputes the statistic that Americans use 500 million straws every day. Yet even Britschgi acknowledges that the California Coastal Commission—a body charged with preserving California’s coast—has picked up more than 800,000 total straws from California beaches from 1989 to 2016.

Early on, the bill also engendered controversy for the penalties attached to its first draft. According to that draft, anyone who failed to comply with the bill would be guilty of a misdemeanor and could be fined up to $1,000 or even sentenced to jail for six months. But amendments to the bill do away with these penalties, as Calderon had anticipated.

Calderon hopes that the restaurant and plastics industries will back the bill because it is “reasonable” and “measured.”

Sharokina Shams of the California Restaurant Association reportedly said that the Association would have to examine the effects of the bill but noted that the bill “is preferable to an outright ban on straws.”

Some restaurants are already voluntarily taking steps to reduce plastic waste, and, despite criticism of Calderon’s bill, have been successful in their efforts.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) has started engaging in efforts to reduce plastic waste by promoting an “Ocean Friendly Restaurants” initiative. Under this initiative, some restaurants in California, and other coastal restaurants located elsewhere in the United States, have become certified as “Ocean Friendly” for implementing environmental sustainability practices. Certified restaurants receive documentation and a window decal from the Surfrider Foundation, an ocean protection organization.

Certified restaurants have taken active steps to make their restaurants more environmentally friendly. Some steps are mandatory: Restaurants must recycle correctly and use reusable utensils and dishes for dine-in meals, restaurants may not use Styrofoam or, for takeout and to-go orders, plastic bags. Some steps are optional: Restaurants must pick, from a set of options, at least three additional steps to take, one of which is to stop giving out plastic straws unless asked—just as Calderon’s bill proposes.

The GGRA believes these environmental efforts are attractive to environment-minded patrons as well.

Similarly, Clean Water Action, an environmental organization, has taken its own steps to engage restaurants in environmentally conscious behavior. For example, in New Jersey, certain restaurants took part in a weekend-long “Straws by Request” program sponsored by Clean Water Action. The program’s rules mirror Calderon’s bill.

Last year, Clean Water Action also encouraged New Jersey restaurants to join in a “Straw Free December,” in which participating restaurants gave out straws only if requested. The owner of one of the restaurants taking part in the program reportedly plans to keep the restaurant straw-free even after the program ended.

The amended bill is currently sitting in the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.