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California's weak plastic-straw ban

With fast-food restaurants exempted, it's just a feel-good measure


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Sometimes you do a good thing. Sometimes you try to do a good thing but fail. And sometimes you simply fail so miserably that your intentions are called into question.

California’s upcoming statewide ban on plastic straws is that sort of abject, suspicious failure. 

Plastic is quickly becoming one of the world’s most pressing ecological disasters. "Micro-plastics" are the poisonous mirepoix of our global seawater, causing scientists to refer to our oceans as “plastic soup” (for a little more background, check out this article). Straws are one of the biggest culprits. With biodegradable and compostable options available on the market, the only sane reason for having plastic straws at all is for disabled Americans.

So it seemed like a good thing on September 20 when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a plastic straw ban, which goes into effect January 1. But it’s not, and here’s why:

Brown’s legislation only applies to full-service restaurants. Fast food restaurants are strangely, wildly, inexplicably exempt. Which means the law also doesn't apply to common sense. 

Sure, full-service restaurants serve straws with sodas and cocktails and occasionally with water. But their usage pales in comparison to fast-food operations, which throw them out like parade candy to each and every guest.

How do you call it a "state-wide ban on plastic straws" if the biggest offender is exempt from the law? That’s like making it illegal for individuals to dump oil in the ocean, but allowing oil companies to do it. Or making smoking in public illegal for everyone—except heavy smokers.

Maybe plastic straws are so integral to the fast-food experience that the state thought it would cripple the industry. Maybe the fast-food industry has a strong and well-funded lobbying budget. Maybe it’s a notification of intent, giving them time to prepare for the ban that will eventually affect them, too.

No matter. Until the plastic straw ban hits fast food operations, it’s just a feel-good measure with very little positive effect on a massive problem. Not to mention it’s a little unfair to full-service restaurants.

It's like making securities fraud a federal crime for everyone, except Enron. Do better, California.

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