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L.A. approves new restrictions on disposable plastic straws, but stops short of a ban

L.A. approves new restrictions on disposable plastic straws, but stops short of a ban
Plastic straws seen at a bubble tea cafe in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Los Angeles restaurants will face new restrictions on handing out plastic straws under an ordinance approved Friday.

The City Council voted 12 to 0 for the new rules, which will go into effect for bigger businesses on Earth Day (April 22) and in October for all other restaurants, grocery stores and other food vendors. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell heralded the decision as an important step toward confronting a “major environmental calamity that is unfolding before us.”

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“If we don’t act now, plastic in the ocean will outnumber fish” by 2050, he said.

Under the new ordinance, L.A. restaurants cannot offer or provide disposable plastic straws to customers who are dining in or taking food to go unless customers request them. The rules are slightly looser for drive-through or delivery: Businesses can go ahead and offer those customers plastic straws, but are still barred from giving them out without a request.

California has already passed similar rules on dine-in restaurants, but the Los Angeles “straws on request” law goes further because it also imposes restrictions on fast-food chains. Unlike San Francisco or Malibu, however, L.A. has not completely banned plastic straws — at least not yet.

In December, L.A. council members asked the Bureau of Sanitation to look into phasing out plastic straws entirely by 2021. O’Farrell has planned to press forward with a ban, saying last year that it is “one of those issues that we should’ve acted on probably 10 years ago.”

But that idea has raised concerns among disability rights advocates, who say that existing alternatives to plastic straws are not always practical or functional for people who need straws to drink. City staffers are preparing an analysis of how to ease the effects of a ban on people with disabilities, alongside the requested report on eliminating plastic straws.

Los Angeles County approved a similar ordinance restricting plastic straws in December and it applies to as many as 1,300 restaurants and food businesses in unincorporated areas. Under the county rules, restaurants must ask customers if they want a plastic straw before giving one out. In the city, it would be up to the customer to make the request in a dine-in restaurant.

Adena Tessler, a lobbyist representing the California Restaurant Assn., said at a recent council committee meeting that “our biggest issue at this point, for the restaurants, is a lack of consistency” among the state, city and county rules. O’Farrell replied that his hope was that restaurant chains would simply follow the “more comprehensive” L.A. rules in businesses across the county.

Plastic straws were the sixth-most collected item on California Coastal Cleanup days from 1988 to 2016, behind cigarettes, food packaging, caps and lids, plastic bags, and plastic utensils and dishes, according to a city report. Los Angeles has already banned plastic bags for groceries, which O’Farrell has credited for reducing bag waste in the L.A. River.

O’Farrell said that “although straws are a small part of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that end up in our ocean every year ... it is one thing that we can have really great control over.” Councilman Paul Krekorian added that the new ordinance “starts to change the national conversation about single-use plastics as a whole.”

Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.

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