California became the first state last year to require that sit-down restaurants give plastic straws only to customers who request them. However, the new round of lawmaking has come with complications, including opposition from business and free enterprise groups, and a fight over which level of government should have the right to regulate single-use plastics. It’s still far from clear how far the anti-plastic revolution will spread.
The result is that environmental groups are celebrating the energy and attention focused on the issue, even as they worry that the legislation is being watered down or co-opted by business groups, which have advocated weaker regulations. “Just the fact we are pushing seven plastic-straw bills represents progress. At this time last year, there was nothing happening at the state level,” Alex Truelove, zero-waste director for consumer group U.S. PIRG, said. “But it’s a huge concern that we mostly are not seeing straw bans, but ‘upon reqeuest’ bills. And many of them are really weak because they exempt most situations where someone would get a straw.”
Some of the new state bills on the table this year limit straw regulations to sit-down restaurants, while allowing fast-food and fast-casual spots to hand out straws to everyone. Others include “pre-emption” language that prevents cities from passing their own, more restrictive rules about plastic straws. Those limits are backed by business groups including the Arlington, Virginia-based American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative business advocacy organization that helps states fight off what the group views as excessive regulation.
Despite opposition from restaurant and industry groups, progress on banning straws and other single-use plastics won’t be stopped, Kate Melges, who leads the anti-plastics campaign for Greenpeace, said via email. “As people continue to learn about the environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution, progress is inevitable,” Melges said. “More and more cities and states are launching efforts to tackle single-use plastics, and even some of the country’s largest corporations are beginning to publicly acknowledge that reduction and reuse are needed to end this crisis.”
More than a dozen cities moved last year to control the use of plastic straws, along with the “on request” law that California passed, which took effect Jan. 1. The pace of change has picked up in the new year, with more than 30 bills introduced in 22 states, according to Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, which supports plastic manufacturers.
Groups such as PIRG and the nonprofit Environment America depict straws as a starting place for further controls on plastic pollution, which they say has reached crisis proportions. They cite research that shows more than 8 million tons of new plastic waste flows into the world’s oceans each year.
While the harm to marine mammals, sea turtles and fish has been the primary driver of the anti-plastic campaigns, activists more recently have increased their complaints about the potential human health impacts of plastic pollution. An alliance of environmental groups released a report earlier this month saying that plastics amount to a crisis “hiding in plain sight.” Straws are seen by some activists as a “gateway plastic” — highly visible but not essential to many consumers — that is a good target for initial legislation.