San Francisco Bans Straws, Cocktail Swords

Violators could be hit with $500 fines.


Nataliia Peregudova/

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has voted unanimously to ban single-use plastic straws, making it the second major American city to do so.

The ordinance outlaws not just plastic straws, but also plastic splash sticks, toothpicks, and cocktail sticks, which would have to include those little swords and umbrellas. Other straw bans typically target food service businesses, but this one will prohibit anyone, including grocery stores and other retailers, from selling plastic straws.

"The negative environmental impacts of single-use plastics are astronomical," bill sponsor Katy Tang said in a statement. "San Francisco has been a pioneer of environmental change, and it's time for us to find alternatives to the plastic that is choking our marine ecosystems and littering our streets."

Like all good straw bans, the text of Tang's bill mentions the questionable statistic that Americans use 500 million straws a day. This statistic comes from a unconfirmed 2011 phone survey of straw manufacturers conducted by a 9-year-old. Market analysts think the actual number is far lower.

Violators of San Francisco's plastic straw/sword ban will face between $100 and $500 in fines, depending on the number of violations. While an explicit exemption for disabled people—many of whom lack the motor skills to drink or eat without a straw—is not included, the bill does say that "strict compliance" with the law is not required when it would "interfere with accommodating for any person's medical needs."

This makes it less punitive than the straw ban in nearby Santa Barbara, which has no disability exemption and even allows for the possibility of criminal sanctions. In other ways, though, San Francisco's straw ban is quite restrictive. Unlike Seattle's straw ban, for example, San Francisco's does not allow straws made from most compostable bioplastics.

The bill also includes a ton of other non-straw-related regulations aimed at cutting down on single-use food containers. Starting in 2020, event planners will now have to make reusable cups available for 10 percent of attendees. That same year, businesses will be required to meet yet-to-be-determined targets for using recycled content in containers, cups, and other "food service ware."

Tang's bill also restricts city departments' ability to issue waivers or exemptions for those claiming financial hardship.

A final vote enacting this ordinance into law is not expected until next week. But given the board's unanimous sign-off, this is a mere formality. The straw ban will take effect in July 2020.

As I've written many times in the past, straw bans are a useless environmental measure. San Francisco's is no exception. The United States is responsible for less than one percent of the world's plastic marine waste, and straws make up a tinier portion of this still. The best way to cut back on plastic pollution in the oceans is to improve waste management systems in China and other parts of the developing world, not to tinker with individuals' consumption habits in the States.

Despite the medical exemption, many disabled people will no doubt find it harder to have a drink out on the town. Able-bodied consumers will be inconvenienced too, although to a lesser degree. Meanwhile, straw-dependent bars, restaurants, and tea shops will see their costs rise even higher in the notoriously expensive city. These might not be life-altering hardships, but the government nevertheless shouldn't be imposing them on people.