The war on the humble plastic straw rages on, but the the battlefield is shifting from city halls in deep blue municipalities to state legislatures in more ideologically diverse states.
Last week, lawmakers introduced a bill to ban straws in Florida and to mandate a state-wide straw-on-request policy—where customers must explicitly ask for a straw before a restaurant is legally allowed to give it to them—in Montana. A similar straw-on-request policy has been floated in Oregon, but formal legislation has yet to be introduced there.
In Washington State—home of the nation's first municipal straw ban in Seattle—legislators have introduced an even more far-reaching bill that would ban any sale or distribution of plastic straws, period.
"Reducing the demand for plastic straws is a concrete action we can take right now to help our environment, and honestly even the low-hanging fruit is worth picking," Sen. Patty Kuderer (D–Bellevue), the bill's sponsor, tells the Whidbey News-Times.
The Washington legislation was conceived by a high school government class from Kirkland, Washington, which perhaps explains the blanket prohibition on any sale or distribution of straws. As far as I know, only San Francisco's straw ban is as sweeping as this proposal. (A state-level bill banning the sale and distribution of straws was introduced in Hawaii in 2018 but went nowhere.)
The Washington bill also lacks the typical exemptions for disabled people. Instead, it rather laughably requires the Department of Health and Department of Social and Health Services to report to the legislature on how best to mitigate any unintended consequences of a straw prohibition.
A disability advocate tells the Whidbey News-Times that he is "horrified" by the legislation.
One small silver lining in the Washington bill is that its penalties are rather tame. Straw ban violators must receive two warnings before they can be fined. Three or more violations opens up a restaurateur to fines of $25 per violation, with annual penalties capped at $300.
Those are the same penalties found in Montana's straw-on-request bill. Florida's ban, by contrast, allows for a $500 fine on the first violation and up to $1,000 for any subsequent violation.
The Florida bill does allow for people with disabilities or other medical conditions to request a straw. That would seem to make the policy unenforceable, given that the bill does not define "disability" or "medical condition" and I imagine restaurants aren't going to be too keen on deciding which conditions qualify.
Outside the West Coast, Florida cities have been the most eager to crackdown on straws, with a number of municipalities either banning them or forbidding them on public beaches.
Scott DeFife, a vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, says his organization opposes blanket prohibitions of straws. "We cannot ban our way out of the issue," he tells Reason. Straw-on-request laws that govern only the end-stage distribution are of less concern to the industry, he says. (And indeed, such rules are less oppressive than the big bans. But they are also intrusive requirements that will do little the address the marine pollution that is the stated purpose of the laws.)
All things considered, there is nothing all that novel about this crop of bills, save for the bodies that will be considering them.
So far, straw bans have passed in the places you might expect them to: coastal municipalities that are heavily populated with environmentally conscious progressives and already had single-use plastic restrictions on the books. How well these bills will fare in state legislatures that have either Republican majorities (Montana, Florida) or a more moderate crop of Democrats will be an interesting test of these paternalistic policies' popularity.
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.