Santa Barbara has become the latest city to crack down on plastic straws, with the city council voting to advance what is likely the most severe prohibition in the country. The law authorizes hefty fines and jail sentences for violators.
On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council moved forward a bill that prohibits restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses from handing out plastic straws to their customers. Plastic stirrers and utensils could still be legally provided, but only if customers request them.
That a municipality would ban plastic straws is sadly unsurprising in the year 2018, when seemingly every city, celebrity, corporation, and cute kid with a nonprofit wants to eliminate the little suckers from polite society. Yet Santa Barbara's ban is notably rigid and punitive.
When Seattle became the first major city in the United States to ban plastic straws in September 2017, it carved out an exemption for compostable plastic straws and made any violation an infraction punishable by a $250 fine. Santa Barbara, by contrast, has banned even compostable straws, permitting only drinking tubes made from nonplastic materials such as paper, metal, or bamboo. The city also has made a second violation* of its straw prohibition both an administrative infraction carrying a $100 fine and a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Each contraband straw or unsolicited plastic stirrer counts as a separate violation, so fines and jail time could stack up quickly.
It may seem unlikely that Santa Barbara will start imposing the maximum penalties for scofflaw straw suppliers, but city officials are not ruling it out. Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent tells me criminal charges would be pursued only after repeat violations and if there were aggravating circumstances.
Supporters of the ban paid little attention to its punitive aspects. Outside the city council meeting where the ordinance was voted on, an environmental activist spoke of the benefits that would accrue to the children. Inside city hall, actual children urged city council members to save the oceans by criminalizing straws, while the adults in the room applauded.
I have written at length about the dubious environmental benefits of banning straws, which make up a tiny fraction of plastic waste. In pursuit of those dubious benefits, straw opponents in Santa Barbara and beyond are willing to make more of their fellow citizens into criminals for victimless offenses.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post said that any violation of Santa Barbara's straw ban could trigger civil and criminal penalties, when in fact two violations are required before such penalties are authorized.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article said that the Santa Barbara City Council voted to pass a straw ban ordinance, when in fact the council had voted to put the ordinance on its consent calendar for the following week. The following week saw the council vote to send the straw ban ordinance back to committee so that amendments could be added. This article discusses the straw ban's current status in more detail.