The Great Straw War

By Bob Hazard   |   January 1, 2019

Last year, a three-year-old video went viral depicting a sea turtle with a plastic straw ensnared in its nose. The tortoise video recorded 30 million hits, setting off a moral panic as teachers all over the country paraded elementary schoolchildren in front of elected officials demanding a straw ban. Film footage of the fabled Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch added to the heart-wrenching turtle tale and supported the eco-rush to ban drinking straws. 

Last July, in response, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 for a citywide ban on the sale or distribution of plastic drinking straws, effective January 1, 2019. The Council also voted 7-0 to ban polystyrene food containers, plastic utensils, and plastic stirrers for any person being served a beverage or prepared food for consumption on the premises or taken away.

Two months later on September 20, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed State Law AB1884, the nation’s first statewide ban on plastic straws. Effective January 1, 2019, California required all full-service restaurants in the state to only give out plastic straws when requested by a customer. Fines are $25 per day, and up to $300 a day for repeated violations. Fast-food outlets, convenience stores, coffee shops and grocery stores are exempted for now. That law seems reasonable, but the intent is clear—reduce and eventually eliminate all single-use food and beverage plastic products.

Three weeks later, on October 9, the Santa Barbara City Council again approved by a vote of 6 to 1 its ban on plastic straws. In response to media ridicule, the City eliminated criminal penalties, including jail time, for selling or purchasing each straw. Unlike the State ban, the City ban denies the right for customers to request plastic straws except for people with medical disabilities. 

Why a Ban on Plastic Straws?

Councilmember Randy Rowse, who owns a family restaurant in Santa Barbara, voted against the straw ban, but added, “Plastic waste doesn’t belong in a marine environment. Any child in our town knows that it is wrong for sea animals to eat our trash. Reducing plastic waste, if done right, is a worthy goal.”

Councilman Rowse is concerned that behavior-ban ordinances seldom solve real problems without collateral damage. His worst fears were realized when fellow City councilman Jason Dominguez inadvertently uttered his now infamous line, “Well you know, Randy, we have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives. Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. Right now, people are still driving SUVs instead of walking or riding their bikes. We’ll be working on that soon.”

Burned by the backlash, Dominguez apologized a week later for his inappropriate “We know what is best for you” remark, advising his supporters that he was misunderstood.

Some find it cynical that San Francisco legislators applaud themselves for handing out some five million plastic syringes and needles for free each year to drug addicts while criminalizing those who use plastic straws, especially as many of those needles and syringes end up littering public parks, city streets and beaches.

How the Straw Ban is Working Out

According to the checkout staff at the Chevron convenience store on Coast Village Road, the topic of conservation among customers in January has not been about mandatory evacuations or the threat of a debris flow. The biggest flap is over the new City and State Straw Wars.

Customers complain that the new paper straws taste like cardboard. They go soggy within a few minutes. Drinks with lids for straw insertion pinch paper straws in half at the lid level. In short, customers do not like the new paper straws. At nearby Blenders-in-the-Grass, customers tell servers that sucking Smoothies through paper straws creates a massive “yuk” factor.

Further north at Mesa Burger, long-time Manager Pixie Green, who also manages the nearby Lighthouse Coffee Shop, offers this assessment:Even before passage of the California and Santa Barbara straw ordinances, we voluntarily removed our straw containers from the counter next to our soda/juice dispenser and put them behind the cash register, requiring customers to ask for a straw. In November, we went to paper straws which elicited a barrage of complaints.”

At her Lighthouse Coffee Shop, Green was surprised to learn that female walkers, bikers, and joggers drink hot coffee through straws to keep it from sloshing on clothes. A number of women told her they even drink beer with straws, so they don’t stain their teeth or mess up their lipstick. Soggy paper straws just don’t work for them.

After two months of trial by paper, Mesa Burger switched to an Eco-Products, 100% compostable, corn-based straw made from plants. The problem is Mesa Burger’s corn-based compostable straws have to be delivered to Ms Green’s parents in Utah, and then forwarded on to Mesa Burger to protect the manufacturer, Eco-Products, from fines. Customers can now request the corn-based straws, which are not specifically authorized under the Santa Barbara ordinance. 

Last June, the CEO of McDonald’s, Steve Easterbrook, told investors, “There isn’t currently a viable alternative that’s non-plastic at the scale we need.” McDonald’s serves 68 million customers each day and use an estimated 95 million McDonald’s straws, according to marine biologist Elaine Leung. Local McDonald’s stores still offer plastic straws for all drinks.

The 14 Habit Burger restaurants in our area still sport their traditional red plastic straws. When asked, an employee whispered that the owners had elected to stay with the current straws since there were no penalties or threats of imprisonment in the Santa Barbara ordinance. 

Starbucks announced last year that it will eliminate single-use plastic straws in all 28,000 stores by 2020. It plans to offer biodegradable straws for Frappuccinos, ban plastic stirrers, and redesign lids on drinks. However, the Starbucks on Coast Village Road continues to offer plastic straws despite the City and State straw bans.

At the Cottage Hospital cafeteria, cashiers continue to provide wrapped plastic straws at the cashier station rather than at the drinks’ dispenser. Fortunately for Cottage, hospitals are exempt from the new straw ban ordinance.

The Need for Balance

Elected officials need to re-examine their work to see how their ordinances operate in the real-world marketplace. Modifications may be appropriate. The reality is no one is obeying the ordinance and law enforcement has no appetite to back the ban.

The first recommendation is for the City to allow customers to request plastic or compostable straws, even if they are not disabled, as is permitted under the State ordinance.

Second: amend the Santa Barbara ordinance to specifically allow 100% compostable, corn-wheat-or hay-based straws made from plants. Compostable means that a product is BPI certified as disintegrating into natural elements in about 90 days in a landfill or compost environment. Biodegradable is not sufficient because that process can take hundreds of years. 

Third: join the state ban in giving fast food, convenience stores, and coffee shops more time to find a viable solution. 

Fourth: be mindful of the “law of unintended overreach.” Last week, a new bill was introduced in Sacramento by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who was wearing a giant “paper receipt” costume. Ting intends to fine businesses $300 for giving customers unsolicited paper receipts. Ting argues deadly chemicals can be found on paper receipts. Ting led the state effort for a straw ban ordinance.

Be wary of those whose mission is life is to ban all consumer behavior that does not conform to their own preferences. Many in California favor getting rid of anything made from petroleum. That would mean, of course, banning all eyeglasses – lenses and rims, all computers, cell phones, and airplane parts, all prescription medicine bottles, cars and trucks, food wraps and most water bottles. Don’t forget to ban all trash bags and plastic liners, all shampoos and all plastic toys.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we create a slippery slope to deceive.


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