NNBV editor column: Let’s not get carried away with straw laws (opinion)

Kevin MacMillan

Kevin MacMillan

This week, I received a press release from the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa declaring the business had “become the first casino-resort in Northern Nevada to implement a no straw policy, joining forces with other industry leaders and cities also dedicated to environmentalism.”

According to the resort, straws will still be available upon request. This includes “plastic straws, stir sticks and cocktail sipping straws.”

The Atlantis’ declaration comes on the heels of a growing trend across America, and right here in Reno of private businesses opting to eliminate the popular plastic devices from their inventory. Earlier this year, for example, NNBV reporter Kaleb M. Roedel covered the story of how, since March 1, Brewer’s Cabinet, Sierra Tap House and Ole Bridge Pub made the joint business move to nix straws.

The main reason? It’s more environmentally savvy to sip than it is to suck.

After all, as the Atlantis notes in its own press release, “experts at Eco-Cycle predict that 500 million straws are used every day in the United States, a number that could fill over 127 school buses each day. Most of those straws are non-biodegradable and do not compost, ending up in landfills and oceans.”

Sure, in the grand scheme of all the plastic in this world, from single-use bags to Tupperware and beyond, straws definitely don’t make up the lion’s share of the plastic pollution that’s negatively impacting our world. But, while getting rid of them might only make a dent in the totals, it’s far better than doing nothing at all, let alone producing more plastic.

The trend is quickly growing across America and the world. On July 26, the Walt Disney Co. announced it will stop using single-use plastic straws and plastic stirrers at all of its locations by mid-2019, part of the company’s “long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship.” The plan will reportedly eliminate more than 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers annually.

Earlier in July, coffee giant Starbucks announced a similar move, saying it will eliminate plastic straws from its 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020. Instead, Starbucks plans to make more of its plastic strapless lids — basically, they allow you to drink your coffee out of an adult “sippy cup” — thus eliminating as much as 1 billion plastic straws on an annual basis (though, the jury’s still out on if the move to sippy-cup lids will do much good if people don’t actively recycle them).

All in all, I’m in favor of producing less plastic and getting rid of as much of it as possible in an effort to try and save Earth’s struggling environment. I applaud local businesses like the Atlantis, Brewer’s Cabinet, Sierra Tap House and Ole Bridge Pub, among many others not mentioned here, for their staunch stance on straws.

Moves like this come after years of momentum from grocery stores and other businesses in California and across the West to get rid of those aforementioned single-use plastic bags, with many cities and towns (including just down the road in Truckee and South Lake Tahoe) implementing laws to ban their existence altogether.

So this all begs the question — how serious are local governments when it comes to similar bans for those tiny, pesky plastic straws?

In California, cities like Malibu and San Luis Obispo have restricted their use. San Luis Obispo, for example, requires single-use straws only be provided in restaurants and bars when customers ask for them. City officials there, according to The Associated Press, say most customers will say “no” if asked if they want a straw.

Farther north in Washington, Seattle reportedly became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils in food service when its new law went into effect July 1. According to the AP, the city’s 5,000 restaurants — including Seattle-based Starbucks outlets — must use reusable or compostable utensils, straws and cocktail picks, and the city is encouraging businesses to consider not providing straws altogether or switch to paper rather than compostable plastic straws.

According to reports, businesses that don’t comply may face a fine of up to $250, but city officials say they will work with businesses to make the changes.

Seems reasonable enough.

Then, going back to the Golden State, there’s the curious case of Santa Barbara, where the City Council on July 17 approved two ordinances prohibiting restaurants, bars and other food and beverage vendors “from providing customers with expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic straws. The container ban passed unanimously, while the straw ban passed 6-1,” according to the Santa Barbara News-Press.

If a restaurant violates the law, it constitutes a warning from law enforcement. But here’s the kicker: a second violation could result in a misdemeanor, according to the ban, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Further, each straw counts as a separate violation, so fines and jail time could conceivably reach near-astronomical levels.

Let me repeat that: You could, albeit unlikely, spend six months behind bars for using a plastic straw.

Naturally, the national media last week picked up on this story, and there are plenty of opinion pieces out there poking fun at — or, full-on lambasting — the Santa Barbara City Council for OK’ing such a punitive measure.

Since, city officials have been quick to suggest that law enforcement would work with offenders to avoid extreme punishment levels, but still, while I appreciate the need to save our planet, threatening a business with jail time for handing out a plastic straw is not a wise policy.

Even if no actual jail time is handed out, the fact the law was adopted sets a questionable-at-best precedent — if you’re a private business trying to earn an honest living, be careful for what your local government may decide is unlawful, because you never know what will be implemented.

Kind of puts a damper on the notion that public-private partnerships may be the best solution to any number of problems a community faces.

Kevin MacMillan is editor of the Northern Nevada Business View. He can be reached for comment at kmacmillan@swiftcom.com.


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