Plastic Pollution

New York's Straw Law Will Fine Business for Giving Out Unsolicited Straws, and Also for Not Having Enough Straws

Those much-maligned single-use plastics had a brief reprieve during the pandemic. Now they're back in politicians' sights.


Those much-maligned single-use plastics had a brief reprieve during the pandemic, when an unfounded fear of COVID's surface transmitting powers prompted jurisdictions to suspend their bans on bags and straws. One unfortunate consequence of our halting return to normality is that those items are back in officials' sights.

Come November, a straw law passed by New York City in May 2021 will go into effect, leaving businesses open to fines for any number of straw-related infractions. That includes the grievous offense of providing a patron with a single-use, non-compostable plastic straw when the customer has not first requested one.

Spurred by some bad stats and bizarre social theories, cities and states started passing these "straw on request" laws in earnest in 2018. Plastics manufacturers and restaurant associations often got on board with them as an alternative to more restrictive bans.

One major source of opposition to these laws was disability rights activists, who worried that such regulations could prompt businesses to get rid of the utensil altogether, or to subject physically handicapped straw requestors to invasive questions about why they need one.

New York City's straw law attempts to addresses this by also requiring businesses to keep a sufficient stash of single-use plastic straws in stock to be handed out upon request. Businesses are also prohibited from asking about a customer's reason for wanting a plastic straw.

In addition, the law requires that restaurants that have self-service drink stations to post signs informing customers about the availability of single-use plastic straws. Some food service businesses must also maintain distinct, labeled bins that are intended to collect compostable, plastic straws. Plastic stirrer sticks are banned entirely.

For the law's first year of being in effect, the city agencies tasked with enforcing it will be required to give businesses a warning for their first violation. Come November 2022, a first violation will come with a $100 fine. The second and third violations would net a business owner $200 to $300 fines.

On Friday, an exasperated New York City Councilmember Kalman Yeger tweeted out the fine schedule for this long list of straw faux pas.

"How much does NYC hate business? Here's the fine schedule being implemented to terrorize NYC businesses for the terrible offenses of giving someone a plastic straw, and also NOT giving someone a plastic straw," he fumed.

The councilmember has a point.

Straws were always a strange target for environmentalists. Marine plastic pollution is indeed a serious problem, but it's primarily a problem of bad waste management, not general plastic use. That's why rich countries with well-developed waste management systems are responsible for a tiny fraction of the plastic leaking into the world's oceans. Litter surveys show us that straws, in particular, are a tiny portion of improperly discarded plastics.

Those are convenient and, in the case of some disabled people, necessary. The extensive carve-outs in New York's straw law are an implicit acceptance of this fact.

And so the attempt to discourage plastic straws while still recognizing the value they provide has led the city to create a bewilderingly complex state-mandated ritual by which straws are dispensed to customers. Businesses that fail to follow the precise steps of this dance will suffer for it in the form of fines that could be quite onerous.

You don't have to be a radical libertarian to think giving out straws to diners doesn't need to be as stage-managed as an audience with the king at Versailles. Surely this is one aspect of human life that we can leave up to individuals to figure out for themselves.