Photo via Flickr user Lisa Thompson
Among the several states in the nation that push a progressive green agenda—Washington, Oregon and Colorado all come to mind—California is consistently just a bit extra when it comes to saving the planet. Way back in 2014, the state became the first in the US to enact legislation banning single-use plastic bags in stores, and its eco-friendly efforts have only picked up steam since then, from Los Angeles’ ever-stricter air quality regulations to Malibu’s ban on plastic cutlery. The latest in the state’s “go green or go home” initiatives is a state assemblyman’s proposal to slash the use of plastic straws in sit-down restaurants—a measure that, though it might seem extreme to some, has been criticized by local environmental groups, in true Cali fashion, as not ambitious enough.
Introduced in January, Assembly Bill 1884 would not ban plastic straws, but is rather being referred to as a “straws-upon-request” policy. It would require sit-down restaurants in the state—but not fast food or fast-casual restaurants—to forego the automatic distribution of straws with each drink; rather, a customer would have to ask for a straw to get one. Under the law, locations that continued to pass out plastic straws would receive two warnings, and would then be subject to per-day fines of $25 apiece, paying a maximum of $300 in fines per year if they still kept up their plastic-slinging ways.The bill’s origin story is pleasingly Californian. AB 1884 is the brainchild of Ian Calderon, the 32-year-old California State Assembly’s Majority Leader who happens to boast notably great hair and a perfectly trimmed beard. The idea came to Calderon when he was just a young(er) dude riding the Pacific’s righteous waves.“I grew up surfing, from the age of seven, and spent a really long time competing in the industry,” Calderon tells MUNCHIES. “I’ve seen so much plastic in the ocean, and what we’ve come to know is that that stuff never goes away. Instead it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which then get eaten by fish, and they become toxic sponges. And to date, there is no definitive knowledge of exactly what happens to us when we eat those fish. That should be really concerning.”
While he is also the co-sponsor, with Assemblyman Mark Stone, of a proposed bill seeking California-specific plastic drink bottles made with an attached cap for easier recycling, Calderon is focusing his ire on plastic straws because, he says, they’re simply unnecessary.“They really are a nuisance,” he says. “I can survive not having a straw. I think most people can cut down on single-use plastics like straws.”As a nation, we love our single-use plastic, defined as an item you use once and then toss immediately, such as plastic forks or cups. And a big part of the problem is that we rarely recycle these accoutrements, instead throwing them into a trash can whose contents are destined for a landfill. According to the Earth Day Network, half of all plastic produced globally each year is destined for single use, and only a fraction of it gets recycled: for instance, Americans only recycle 23 percent of the water bottles we use.Given the 78 million tons of plastic that flow into our oceans each year, cutting back on single use items, in particular, seems to be a no-brainer, and as Calderon notes, straws are an easy target. Apart from the small segment of the population that is physically impaired and requires the use of a straw, no one really needs these things.And it’s not just governments and ecological organizations that are taking note: Both restaurants and their customers are increasingly saying “no, thanks” even in the absence of legislation. In New York City, 35 restaurants and bars have joined a Wildlife Conservation Society campaign called “Give a Sip,” pledging to ditch plastic straws; at Instagram darling Sunday in Brooklyn in Williamsburg, where brunch is serious business, pretty floral-printed paper substitutes adorn $9 green juices instead.
And online, a petition with 202,000 signers demands that McDonald’s cut its use of plastic straws. While U.S. locations of the fast food behemoth haven’t taken that step, some of its UK restaurants have implemented a “straws-by-request” policy similar to Calderon’s proposal. (At press time, McDonald’s press office had not responded to a request for comment.)There’s clearly an effort underfoot to banish the maligned plastic straw. But some organizations have criticized proposed legislation as not forceful enough. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group Californians Against Waste, based in Sacramento, has officially thrown its support behind Calderon’s AB 1884, but have also urged the assemblyman to broaden his bill to include the many fast-casual and fast food (In-N-Out, anyone?) establishments that are currently excluded.“There has been talk about the bill needing to be even stronger,” Kelly McBee, a policy analyst at the organization, tells MUNCHIES. “If it were broader it would make a much larger impact. And this bill might actually take out the drive to make a larger impact. What we’re afraid of is, what happens if this bill passes and we just say, ‘That’s it, we took care of plastic?’ As it is now, it doesn’t go far enough.”But as Calderon points out, it’s the limitations of his bill that might actually get it through the many stages of the California legislature and to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.
“I see a lot of environmental-focused bills die in the legislature,” he says. “The more you bring in to a bill, the more you make yourself susceptible to industry backlash. In keeping this bill focused, I want to minimize the ability for someone to undercut me by using the argument that it’s too burdensome to get codified into law.”In other words, including fast food chains in the initial push to reduce the use of plastic straws could sink the bill and prohibit any change from taking place at all..It appears that there’s something to Calderon’s logic. While stores and restaurants often chafe against calls to go more green, citing the increased costs of items like paper straws (which cost about four times as much as their plastic counterparts) and compostable cutlery, the California restaurant industry just doesn’t seem that upset about Calderon’s bill.“People have assumed that we would offer opposition, but the truth is we don’t,” says Sharokina Shams, VP of public affairs at the California Restaurant Association. “We don’t actually see the potential for a cost increase with this bill, and that’s one reason why we don’t oppose it. We also appreciate that it still maintains choice for consumers: If they still want a straw, they can ask for one.”According to Calderon, AB 1884 will actually save restaurants money, as they no longer need to buy so many straws that are just destined for the trash. And he thinks that that financial incentive will inspire them to voluntarily broaden the bill’s application.“It’s like a ripple effect,” he says. “Sit-down restaurants will apply it to their takeout, awareness will continue to build among customers. It starts to catch on, and creates a habitual change.”Whether the bill passes or dies a bureaucracy-heavy death remains to be seen; it won’t make it to the governor until later this summer. So if you happen to be a die-hard milkshake fiend for whom only plastic straws will do, there’s still time for you to repent and change your ways.