California Passes First State-Level 'Straw On Request' Law

The new legislation is more performative than punitive. That doesn't make it a good idea.



California is really going down the tubes. On Thursday, the state legislature approved a straw-on-request bill, which would prohibit full-service restaurants from providing customers with a straw unless they specifically request one.

First introduced in January, the bill drew national attention for the harsh penalties it initially included—$1,000 fines and 6 months in jail—and for the sponsor's use of the ubiquitous but inaccurate statistic that Americans use 500 millions straws a day. (The source of that figure is a nine-year-old.)

That sponsor, Assemblyman Ian Calderon's (D–Los Angeles), has stood by the 500 million figure, with his staff telling The Washington Post that they have no reason to think it's inaccurate. But he has backed away from the penalties, saying his intention was never to criminalize straw use but just to "raise awareness about the detrimental effects of plastic straws on our environment."

The bill that passed out the legislature yesterday give businesses mere warnings the first two times they're caught handing out unsolicited plastic straws. A third offence would net them a $25 fine for each day they supply straws by default, with annual fines capped at $300. Fast food restaurants, and any other food service business that don't meet the state's definition of "full service," would be exempt from the law.

That makes the law weaker than some of the local straw bans around the state. San Francisco's ordinance, for instance, prohibits single-use plastic straws not only in all restaurants, but also in grocery stores and other retail outlets. Violators in the Bay City could be hit with fines of up to $500.

Indeed, Calderon's final bill was watered down enough that the state's Chamber of Commerce, its Restaurant Association, and even its Plastic Industry Association all remained neutral.

Performative prohibition is certainly preferable to the punitive kind. But the bill's limited effect raises the question of what purpose it's supposed to serve. For Calderon, it's all about making the little steps.

"It's critical that we reduce the negative effects of plastic pollution," he tells the Los Angels Times. "By removing the default behavior of providing straws with every drink, consumers have an opportunity to make a deliberate, small change that will lessen the harmful impacts of single-use plastic straws in our environment."

Yet cracking down on straws does essentially nothing to address the problem of plastic pollution. Straws are about 3 percent of beach litter in California, and about .02 percent of the overall plastic waste that gets into our oceans each year.

Rather than getting people to think about how best to address the other 99.8 percent of plastic getting into the oceans each year, bills like Calderon's will only encourage similar petty intrusions from government in more places, and on more single-use items. (Look out, balloons!)

The bill now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, who is expected to sign it into law.