Plastic waste is a tax on the earth – and people’s budgets.
That’s the stance California took in August when lawmakers voted to make the state the first to restrict the distribution of plastic straws. It now awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. The bill would prohibit what are termed “full-service restaurants” from serving plastic straws unless they are specifically requested by customers.
Unfortunately, this hardly constitutes a “plastic straw ban,” despite the proclamations of AB-1884 supporters and detractors. Plastic straws will continue to be purchased and ultimately thrown out in the trash – just at a reduced rate.
That is not to say that AB-1884 isn’t worth implementing. After all, plastic waste damages California’s beaches and marine environments, harms birds and marine life and stays in the environment for hundreds of years.
But much more can and should be done to limit plastic waste across California. After all, plastic waste comes from more than just straws. Requiring manufacturers take back plastic waste generated from wrappers and using compostable bioplastics in straws would benefit California’s environment much more than AB-1884 could ever.
For instance, university dining halls and order-at-the-counter restaurants – institutions that do not qualify as “full-service restaurants,” are exempt from the plastic straw limitations. Americans use 500 million straws a day, many of which come from restaurants like Rendezvous and Chipotle. These services shouldn’t be able to skirt their environmental responsibilities just because they are designed to serve customers quickly.
Likewise, plastic waste from packaging is plentiful and AB-1884 does nothing to change that. Lawmakers shouldn’t celebrate until they meaningfully address these shortcomings.
However, any plastic straw overhaul needs to be made with context in mind. While eliminating plastic altogether is ultimately the best solution, it is simply not feasible. People with limited mobility and disabilities such as cerebral palsy frequently rely on stronger plastic straws to be able to drink.
Laws instead need to aim to cut back plastic waste while being as unobtrusive to everyday people as possible. One such way for California to do that is already in practice at UCLA.
“(UCLA Housing) has a purchasing policy in which we try to encourage vendors to take back packaging, if possible,” said Erin Fabris, sustainability manager for UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services.
California needs to follow suit and require companies take back the plastic waste created by their products, thereby placing the onus of waste disposal on the ones responsible for disseminating it in the first place.
This approach would do much more to curb plastic waste than AB-1884 is capable of. Plastic waste from packaging and straws is more preventable than this bill makes it seem.
Bonny Bentzin, UCLA’s Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer, said shifting this responsibility would ultimately lead manufacturers to design their plastic waste to be more easily demanufactured. Companies could boost local economies by paying local businesses to handle this process for them. Alternatively, manufacturers may instead decide to create less waste, reducing their manufacturing costs. Both scenarios would greatly reduce California’s plastic waste output and ease the tax burden on California taxpayers for disposal.
California should move to subsidize this cost of commercial washing so more universities adopt these sustainable practices and quit taxing the environment so much. Bentzin said Pomona College will provide wares from Preserve, a company that creates their products from recycled #5 plastics, if they are requested in advance of large events. If the dirty dishes are returned within a day of the event, Pomona college will have them sent to commercial washing for free, reducing the amount of student money that goes toward generating trash.
Beyond subsidies, future California legislation needs to require all plastic straws be made from bioplastics to significantly reduce plastic waste. These plastics, derived from renewable sources such as corn starch, vegetable fats and food waste, can be composted in industrial facilities.
“With the global marine debris crisis growing each and every year, these sorts of common sense laws to reduce our addiction to single-use plastics make sense,” said Mark Gold, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability.
California needs to implement these solutions if it wants to get serious about reducing plastic waste. While AB-1884 is an applaudable first step, California cannot be complicit in thinking it is the end-all, be-all to the state’s plastic woes.
And city ordinances already exist in California that mandate these things. In February, Malibu banned restaurants from giving out plastic straws, stirrers and utensils. Simply passing legislation banning nonrecyclable plastic, which Santa Monica did in 2007, would also be a step toward significantly reducing plastic waste. Strict laws are not just feasible – they are necessary.
Of course, legislation needs to ensure businesses can make a smooth transition to more renewable plastic practices. San Francisco is grappling with this problem as its haste to eliminate plastic straws has caused concern among boba shops about their ability to change so quickly. And if there’s one thing Californians don’t want to lose, it’s their boba.
AB-1884 is a commendable effort, but it shouldn’t be the only effort. The legislation shouldn’t be celebrated as much for what it does, rather for what it could usher in. Straws are only the tip of California’s plastic iceberg. And this happens to be one iceberg we can’t afford to ignore.