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California becomes the first state to restrict plastic straws at restaurants

California becomes the first state to restrict plastic straws at restaurants
Plastic straws on display in a studio in Paris. Gov. Jerry Brown said plastic in the oceans is estimated to kill millions of marine animals each year. (Joel Saget / AFP/Getty Images)

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed the nation’s first state law barring dine-in restaurants from giving customers plastic straws unless they are requested, saying discarded plastic is “choking our planet.”

Brown cited the damage that discarded plastic has done to marine life and its threat to human health.

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“Plastic has helped advance innovation in our society, but our infatuation with single-use convenience has led to disastrous consequences,” Brown wrote in a signing message.

The governor said plastic in the oceans is estimated to kill millions of marine animals each year, and he noted that when a dead pilot whale washed up on a beach in Thailand recently, 80 plastic bags were found in its stomach that prevented the digestion of food.

“Nor are humans immune as microplastics were recently found in tap water around the world,” Brown wrote. “Plastics, in all forms — straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc. — are choking our planet.”

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, exempts fast-food restaurants and provides full-service restaurants with a written warning on the first two violations and a fine of $25 a day for subsequent infractions.

“It is a very small step to make a customer who wants a plastic straw ask for it,” Brown said. “And it might make them pause and think again about an alternative. But one thing is clear, we must find ways to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic products.”

The measure is part of a global effort to reduce the use of plastic, which experts say makes up as much as 80% of all marine debris.

Earlier this month, a ship left San Francisco Bay with plans to remove the 79,000 metric tons of plastic believed to be floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch midway between California and Hawaii, a collection of marine debris estimated to be twice the size of Texas.

Closer to home, the California Coastal Commission recorded roughly 835,425 plastic straws and stirrers that were picked up during organized beach cleanups during a quarter-century period ending in 2014, according to Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier), who introduced the legislation.

“By removing the default behavior of providing straws with every drink, consumers have an opportunity to make a deliberate, small change that will minimize the harmful impacts of single-use plastic straws in the environment,” Calderon said Thursday after the governor’s announcement.

The measure was largely opposed by Republican lawmakers who predicted it is the first step toward a total ban on straws that will be a burden to small businesses.

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said exempting fast-food restaurants means it will not apply to those eateries where customers take the straws away with them to dispose later.

“I just don’t see how this is going to make that much a difference in reducing straws in the waterways,” Melendez said. “Punishing the restaurant for defying this mandate I just think sends the wrong message.”

Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) also objected to the state meddling in the affairs of restaurants.

“When I take my wife out to eat and we sit down and we finally have a chance to get away from the kids, I’m not looking for a lecture on straws and ocean health, and an interruption of the ambience,” Mathis said.

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Limits on access to straws concern some in the disabled community, who note they are needed by people who don’t have the arm or hand strength to lift cups and glasses and tilt them for drinking. The straws-on-request policy is reasonable in principle, according to Karin Willison, a travel blogger with cerebral palsy, but she worries some restaurants may stop offering plastic straws to avoid the possibility of fines or otherwise make access difficult.

“Some people who need straws may have an invisible disability or illness, and they should be able to receive a straw without being judged or asked if they ‘really’ need it,” said Willison, who is the disability editor at the Mighty, a website on health issues.

The European Commission proposed in May that the European Union limit the use of single-use plastic products. Several California cities, including Santa Monica, have adopted local ordinances requiring food service workers to provide plastic utensils only upon request.

“The California Legislature is continuing to fill the vacuum of federal leadership by tackling our plastic pollution crisis and the throw-away culture that causes it,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste.

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