(Photo: Kai Schreiber/Flickr)
I have been writing about single use plastics for a long time, well before I co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009. In that time, plastic pollution has only escalated despite the increased attention that is now evident in major media. It’s a lot like climate change. We know it’s happening, but it keeps getting worse. Education is simply not enough to stop the flow of ubiquitous, cheap single use plastics into our waste stream and into the environment, despite our knowledge of the dangerous impacts on our waterways, aquatic life, wildlife on land, human health and our economy in cleanup costs and impacts on beach tourism.
Is there any hope to stem the tide of single use plastics into our environment? I believe firmly that the only solution is legislative. Plastic is ubiquitous because it is made of petroleum or natural gas, cheap fossil fuels that we are going to increasingly dangerous extremes to extract from nature. The price of these dangerous fossil fuels is only low because we fail to factor in the cost of extraction to our health and environment and to our future as our climate changes.
Plastics are of great value for many purposes that are not single use, but the majority of plastics are used for brief times and enter our waste stream almost immediately. Because business (see my open letter to Starbucks here) has little incentive to change materials when the cost of plastics is so low that recycling them is not even incentivized, the plague of plastic pollution must be solved though proactive policy. We have decreased use though legislation very effectively with cigarettes through taxes and limitations on use, and we have begun to use legislation to limit plastics. The first examples were plastic bags which have been banned in certain forms and sales points in both the states of Hawaii and California.
I was a co-author of model legislation to ban plastic microbeads in consumer personal grooming products. That law passed in many states and became national law signed by President Obama. Plastic microbeads were the low hanging fruit of single use plastics because they are easily replaced and there is no argument about their immediate harm as they wash immediately down our drains and into our waterways.
California State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who successfully carried California’s plastic microbead ban, stated:
“This is not a problem without a solution. Plastic microbeads are not essential to personal care products. Safe and natural alternatives are available such as walnut husks, pecan shells, apricot shells, and cocoa beans. Some brands already use environmentally safe alternatives. However, there are still a number of companies who are holding out. By passing this bill, we will take the first step in phasing out these damaging products completely in California and paving the way for other states and countries to follow our lead.“
It is now time to turn our attention to devising legislative solutions to other forms of single use plastic pollution. Having seen the success of the model law that fellow environmental lawyer Rachel Doughty and I wrote for plastic microbeads become legislation that swept the nation, I am offering up my model law for plastic straws only upon request.
This law is modeled after the water upon request legislation that came about in response to drought in states like California. This law is a simple beginning point — one that should not pose a challenge from the petrochemical lobby that is very effective in fighting plastic bans. I believe that plastic straws should be banned in places that can pass such legislation, and that a patchwork of bans can lead to a statewide — and even national — ban on single use plastics.
I encourage each legislative jurisdiction to press for the most restrictive use of single use plastics to protect human health, wildlife and the environment. This model legislation I have drafted for California for plastic straws upon request only is a great beginning as it reverses the current dynamic in which cheap plastic straws are provided without customers asking in almost all food establishments. This law would provide an opening for public education about the need for the law that could lead to additional legislation to curtail single use plastic pollution.
California Plastic Straws Upon Request Only Law
- Findings that Plastic Straws are an environmental and health threat impacting the State of California, its ecosystem, wildlife and its citizens.
(a) California’s Coastal Cleanup Day, which started in 1989, was declared “the largest garbage collection ever organized” by Guinness Book of World Records in 1993, and keeps growing each year, along with the amount of plastic pollution collected. In a summary of all trash collected between 1989 and 2014, straws and stirrers rank as the 6th most common item collected.
(b) 500 Million Plastic Straws are used and discarded per day in America. That is enough to wrap the circumference of the earth 2.5 times per day.
(c) Like all single-use plastics, plastic straws are used for seconds, but last forever. 91% of all plastics are not recycled, but no straws are recycled. They have no resin code and therefore, regardless of what type of plastic they are, are not recyclable, or recycled. In addition, even if the resin code were known, their small size is not compatible with sorting machines and can damage the machinery.
(d) Petroleum-based plastic straws never truly biodegrade, they simply break down into smaller ever pieces, becoming more difficult to manage in our environment. Bioplastics are not a solution to marine plastic pollution as they do not break down in a marine environment.
(f) Plastics in the ocean attract other pollutants in the water, magnifying the toxicity of the plastic fragments that are consumed by fish we eat.
(g) Plastic Straws are a threat to wildlife as demonstrated in this video of an endangered sea turtle suffering with a plastic straw in its nose.
(h) Very few people actually need a plastic straw, and yet they are provided habitually and every minute to those who don’t want or need them.
(i) Plastic straws contaminate food waste from food establishments that could otherwise become compost.
(j) The cost to taxpayers of coastal cleanup and the health risks of plastic in our seafood from plastic straws is a burden that can be easily decreased by offering straws only upon request.
- Requirements of Establishments that Provide Plastic Straws:
(a) To reduce plastic pollution from straws, the following is prohibited: the serving of plastic straws other than upon request in eating or drinking establishments including but not limited to restaurants, hotels, cafes, cafeterias, including school cafeterias, bars, or other places where food or drink is served or purchased.
(b) The taking of any action prohibited in subdivision (a) in addition to any other applicable civil or criminal penalties, is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to five hundred dollars ($500) for each day in which a violation occurs at the establishment.
(c) This law does not prohibit the offering of food grade paper straws or straws made of compostable plants, such as wheat, or reusable non-plastic straws, such as steel straws.
(d) There is no exemption in this law for “Bioplastic” straws as such plastics have not demonstrated sufficient degradation or safety to wildlife in marine environments.
Lisa Kaas Boyle is an environmental attorney and an expert in plastic pollution issues. She currently serves as Executive Director of WeTap, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the drinking fountain as the only sustainable way to keep the public healthy and hydrated while reducing plastic pollution.