Portland Joins the Drinking Straw Crackdown

Yet another pointless municipal straw ban takes hold


Jesse Kraft/Dreamstime.com

Portland, Oregon, is the latest city to crack down on plastic straws, voting unanimously Wednesday to introduce a straw-on-request law.

It's not the worst straw restriction I've seen, but it is nonetheless a depressing reminder of how normalized this form of petty authoritarianism has become.

The new Portland ordinance forbids food retailers and institutional cafeterias (like those at schools and hospitals) from offering straws, plastic cutlery, and single-use condiment packages. They can still provide those items, but customers must first request them.

Violators of Portland's ordinance will be hit with a $100 fine for a first offence, $200 for a second, and $500 for every violation thereafter. A business cannot be penalized more than once in a week for handing out unsolicited straws.

"We are clearly on a path to eliminating single-use plastics. This is our first line in the sand," the Portland Tribune quotes Mayor Ted Wheeler saying after passage of the bill.

On the one hand, Portland's ordinance is narrower in scope and less severe in its sanctions than other straw bans that've popped up across the country. Seattle and San Francisco have both banned outright straws at restaurants. Santa Barbara's straw prohibition initially opened up restaurateurs to criminal charges. (Those were eventually pulled from the bill.)

Portland's ordinance was mild enough that it even nabbed the endorsement of the lobbyist for the state's restaurant and lodging association, reports the Tribune. Ensuring straws are available on request has also quieted complaints from the disabled community. As with all straw bans, however, the carve-outs are a reminder that these policies are invasive and unpopular at the conceptual level.

Portlanders will need to get in the habit of asking for soy sauce when they get takeout, because thanks to the fearless efforts of the Portland City Council, anticipating the customers wants and simply chucking a few bags of soy sauce in with the order is now actually illegal. This would seem ridiculous even if there were a compelling environmental justification for restrictions on single-use plastics. There is not.

The vast majority of plastics in the world's oceans do not come from the takeout joints of Portland or the coffee shops of Seattle, but rather from the world's developing nations, which lack the sophisticated waste collection systems we have in the U.S.

These bans can't fix systemic waste collection systems abroad, but they sure do inconvenience consumers here in the U.S.