California Bill Aims to Ban Plastic Straws

Restaurant workers could face fines of $1,000 or six months in jail if they offer plastic straws to customers.

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Feb 1 2018, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Eric Strathmeyer

If you eat at the same caliber of restaurants as I do, you know that immediately after putting your soda on the table, the waiter will then drop a pile of paper-wrapped plastic straws in the center, before leaving you to decide what kind of bread you want your patty melt on. But according to a piece of proposed legislation in California, this vulgar display of plastic straws might cost the waitstaff $1,000—or put them in jail for six months.

Democrat Ian Calderon, the leader of the California State Assembly, proposed the bill in a well-meaning but perhaps Draconian attempt to help the environment by eliminating plastic drinking straws. "We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use of plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans," Calderon said in a statement. He also told ABC News that he “didn’t ask for” the penalties, but they were automatically added because the bill fit under the existing health and safety code.

Calderon claims that he’s really just looking out for Mother Earth, not trying to punish restaurant workers. (And, oddly enough, fast food restaurants are exempt from the bill, even though they’re probably the heaviest straw-pushers around). He said that an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used and trashed every day in the US—although the source of that figure is unclear.

The “500 million straws” figure has been repeatedly cited by Calderon, activists and even the National Park Service but, according to Reason, it has a less-than-scientific origin. The number originally came from Eco-Cycle, a recycling company, but it was allegedly provided to them by a nine-year-old boy. No, really. In 2011, a then-nine-year-old Milo Cress conducted phone surveys of straw manufacturers and, after hanging up his parents’ phone, he arrived at that figure, which has been roundly quoted ever since. (Cress, now 16, says the National Restaurant Association has since double-checked his estimates).

In addition to basing his bill on research conducted by a child, Calderon’s proposal might be increasingly unnecessary. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that many cities, such as Manhattan Beach and Santa Cruz, have already banned or partially banned straws and other disposable plastics. Berkeley and Los Angeles are currently considering limits or bans on them as well.

“Not everything needs to be legislated,” Golden Gate Restaurant Association executive director Gwyneth Borden told the Chronicle. “The industry will be more creative and innovative if given the opportunity to come up with a solution.”

Outside of California, an increasing number of cities have cracked down on single-use plastic straws. According to the Washington Post, restaurants in cities including Asbury Park, NJ; British Columbia; London; Miami; and New York have vowed to either go entirely strawless or “withhold straws until patrons ask for them.” Last year, the entire city of Seattle voted to ban plastic straws and utensils; by July 2018, every establishment that sells food or drinks must be stocked with biodegradable or compostable options instead. And, earlier this month, Scotland’s Sunday Mail launched its own campaign to make Scotland the first country in Europe to go completely straw-free.

If Calderon’s bill is a success, California governor Jerry Brown will get the chance to approve the bill—minus those serious penalties—in about two months. Until then, suck ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I guess.