Cali goes strawless

What is seen as a minor change for a majority of people could have lasting implications on the state’s disabled community

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Every day in the United States, people throw away more than 175 million plastic straws. To combat the waste, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1884 in September, making California the first state to go strawless on January 1. But what seems like a minor change for a majority of people could have lasting implications—not just on California’s environment, but also for the state’s disabled community.

The new law “prohibits dine-in restaurants from automatically providing plastic straws.” It doesn’t affect to-go orders at fast food restaurants or take-away drinks at coffee shops, and violations can cost up to $25 per day.

Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) says straws are just one example of single-use plastic waste that can be eliminated.

“This is one of many steps that California can take to look at single-use plastics, and identify where we can eliminate their use,” Rusch says.

According to a 2017 report in Science Advances, 79 percent of plastic waste winds up in a landfill, while just 9 percent is actually recycled.

“No one is saying that plastic is not useful in our society,” Rusch says. “But we need to think about throwing these things out that will last in our environment for thousands of years.”

Many local restaurateurs have already made the switch from plastic to paper. Patrick Mulvaney, owner and chef of Mulvaney’s B&L in Midtown, says they began to change over to paper straws and bamboo toothpicks more than a year ago, and even flirted with the idea of pasta-stick stirrers.

“It’s a challenge,” Mulvaney says. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it.”

He adds that some customers have already started bringing in their own reusable straws, but even if someone wanted a plastic straw at Mulvaney’s, it wouldn’t be available—it’s paper or nothing.

That’s part of the bigger problem, says Pat McConahay, communications director for Disability Rights California. The language in the new law says sit-down patrons can ask for a plastic straw, but it doesn’t require restaurants to have a stash available on request.

“Blanket laws can sometimes have an unintended negative effect and people might not realize it’s not just a convenience,” McConahay says. “It’s a necessity.”

If someone is paraplegic or quadriplegic, and doesn’t have use of their arms, a straw may be the only way to drink. If you have cerebral palsy or suffered a stroke, it may not be an option to simply raise a glass to your lips.

So what’s the problem with alternative materials? Paper turns to mush and metal conducts heat. Plastic, McConahay says, is really the only viable option for the greatest number of people. And, she adds, if local restaurants can’t provide access to their services, plastic straws might be more than just a sticking point between the two communities, it could become a civil rights issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.