San Francisco Bans Plastic Straws

Published September 3, 2018

With a unanimous vote of its 11-person Board of Supervisors, San Francisco became the latest city to ban the sale or distribution of single-use plastic straws at restaurants, bars, and retailers.

On July 1, Seattle, Washington became the first large city in the United States to institute such a ban. A growing number of cities throughout California have also banned plastic straws. Cities’ officials say the bans are intended to reduce plastic waste on streets and in waterways.

Much More Than Straws

San Francisco’s “Plastic, Toxics and Litter Reduction Ordinance” is broader than prohibitions imposed by other cities. In addition to plastic straws, the ordinance bans plastic toothpicks, cocktail sticks, and any product classified as “single-use food service ware made with fluorinated chemicals and certain items made with plastic.” Even compostable single-use plastic utensils are banned.

The ordinance also prohibits restaurants from offering napkins and utensils with takeout or delivery orders unless customers specifically request them or take them from a self-serve station.

Businesses violating the ban face fines ranging from $100 to $500 per incident, depending on the number of violations, beginning January 1, 2020. The ban was adopted on July 31 and takes effect July 1, 2019.

Earlier in July, Santa Barbara, California imposed a plastic straw ban on restaurants, bars, and other food service establishments, setting the harshest punishments thus far enacted by any city for these violations. First-time offenders receive a written warning, but for each offense thereafter Santa Barbara’s municipal code specifies a “fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) [and/or] imprisonment for a term not exceeding six (6) months.”

Disability Groups Complaining

People and groups who advocate for the disabled, such as the Disability Visibility Project and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, have complained plastic straw bans discriminate against them and others with special needs.

Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, says plastic straw bans make it more difficult for her to participate in social activities.

“Plastic is an essential part of my health and wellness, meaning bans on plastic straws are regressive, not progressive” said Wong. “My neuromuscular disability makes plastic straws necessary for my hydration and nutrition.

“It’s as if the environment is more important to those pushing these bans than the needs of people who rely on plastic straws, like the elderly, children, and the disabled,” Wong said. “Policymakers should take into account how all members of the community are impacted at the outset, especially the most marginalized. Rather than incentivizing waste reduction, bans like this penalize small businesses and customers like me who just want to meet their friends for coffee like everyone else.”

Advocates for the disabled say plastic straw alternatives have serious drawbacks. Each alternative is much more expensive than plastic, and glass straws can shatter, resulting in cut lips and gums; metal straws can crack or break teeth; straws made from wheat or corn can cause allergic reactions; and paper straws get soft and quickly become unusable.

‘There Is No Problem’

The plastic straw bans will not solve the problem of plastic waste, says Kerry Jackson, a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute’s Center for California Reform.

“One percent of the plastic found in the ocean comes from California, meaning California can do whatever it wants to do, but it’s not going to change anything,” Jackson said. “Plastic straws are not dangerous to anybody, and they can be disposed of properly, which most people do.

“City politicians are offering a solution when there is no problem,” said Jackson.

Jackson says California is playing a game of follow-the-leader that will not work.

“If California thinks its plastic straw and plastic bag bans will inspire others to follow, it is likely mistaken,” Jackson said. “It’s the same poor reasoning used to justify cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Politicians know if there were zero greenhouse gas emissions from California it would have no impact on the climate, but they excuse their legislative excesses by claiming other states will follow California’s government-forced cuts,” said Jackson. “It won’t work.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.