This month, we’re asking Aquarium visitors and social media followers in California to support the Straws On Request bill—and join the movement to combat ocean plastic pollution. We sat down with Amy Wolfrum, our California Ocean Conservation Policy Manager, to discuss the bill and how it connects to the Aquarium’s larger ocean conservation mission.
UPDATE 9.20.18—We did it! The California Legislature passed the Straws On Request bill, AB 1884, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. Beginning January 1, 2019, dine-in restaurants across the state will provide a plastic straw only to customers who ask for one.
What’s the Straws On Request bill?
California Assembly Bill (AB) 1884, sometimes called the Straws On Request bill, would require that dine-in, full-service restaurants across the state provide straws only when customers ask for them. Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon introduced the bill in response to a growing body of science showing that plastic pollution is a real problem for our planet—especially the ocean.
Why is plastic such a problem for the ocean?
It’s estimated that nearly 9 million U.S. tons of plastic enters the global ocean each year. That’s like dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute! And if people around the world don’t make changes, the rate of plastic flowing into the sea is expected to double by 2025.
Plastic can now be found in almost every marine habitat on Earth—from polar ice to deep ocean trenches. Marine animals are harmed by plastic pollution in two ways: when they accidentally eat it, and when they become entangled in it.
You’ve used the name “amybird” on social media—it seems like birds are a big deal for you. How are seabirds affected by plastic?
I’m a lifelong birdwatcher. Ever since I identified my first bird, a black phoebe, at age 16, I’ve had a special place in my heart for birds. It concerns me very much to know that seabirds are eating plastic from the ocean. They think it’s food and then, in turn, they feed it to their young. Plastic can fill up the stomachs of birds and other animals, and cause them to starve.
It’s estimated that by 2050, over 99 percent of seabird species will have ingested plastic. Stats like this motivate me to look at my habits and say “no thanks” to unnecessary single-use plastic whenever possible.
Straws are only small part of the plastic problem. Why focus on them?
Plastic straws are likely only a small percentage of ocean plastic pollution, but they consistently show up among the top 10 items collected in beach cleanups around the world. Most are made of a petroleum byproduct called polypropylene, often mixed with other chemicals. They don’t biodegrade under natural conditions, and they can’t easily be recycled due to their small size.
Instead, they persist on our planet for hundreds of years—breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces without being assimilated back into the environment. This means it’s likely that almost every plastic straw ever used is still with us, either on land or in the ocean.
Targeting plastic straws raises awareness of the larger problem with plastic and the ocean. It gets people thinking and talking about ways they can reduce their reliance on single-use plastic items—and encourages the innovation of ocean-friendly alternatives.
What about people with disabilities for whom plastic straws are a necessity?
Some people do need plastic straws due to disabilities or medical needs. For them, a straw is an assistive device that helps them eat or drink. We have to ensure that plastic straws remain available and accessible to those who need them, through policies like the Straws On Request bill, and clear exemptions in any law that could be considered a straw ban.
For people without these disabilities, however, straws really are optional—and avoidable. In most cases, we don’t even need ocean-friendly alternatives; we can just skip the straw, and sip our drinks like we do a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Limiting the use of plastic straws to people who really need them will make a big dent in the volume of straws Californians go through.
How can I support California’s Straws On Request bill?
Thanks for asking! Click here to contact your California state legislators, and ask them to vote “yes” on AB 1884. Let them know you support this and other efforts to tackle ocean plastic pollution at the source—by making and using less unnecessary single-use plastic.
What businesses would be affected?
AB 1884 only applies to dine-in restaurants—places where people sit down to eat. It does not apply to fast-food or drive-through restaurants, coffee shops, bars, school cafeterias, health care facilities, mobile food facilities (like food trucks), vending machines, farmers markets, or even fast-casual restaurants with self-service beverage stations.
Would affected restaurants be punished for serving plastic straws that were not requested?
Under the Straws On Request bill, first and second violations would result in warnings. After that, violations could trigger fines of $25 per day, up to $300 per year.
Does the Aquarium use plastic straws and other forms of single-use plastic?
We’re making a serious effort to cut down on our own use of plastic. We’ve eliminated plastic straws from our cafe and restaurant—with the exception of a small supply for those who specifically request them.
We’ve also cut non-compostable, single-use plastic beverage containers and plastic bags out of our foodservice operations. We’re always looking for new ways to reduce our own plastic consumption, and we encourage our visitors to consider alternatives to plastic whenever possible.
Why is the Aquarium allowed to take a position on this bill and other legislation?
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we are permitted to take action on policies like this bill, and we must report on these activities. We’re limited in the amount of time and money we can spend on policy-related action.
What if Straws On Request becomes the law in California?
If AB 1884 passes and is signed into law, you’ll have more choice when it comes to plastic straws in your beverages. If you need one, by all means, ask for it—and restaurants ought to accommodate, no questions asked. If you prefer a straw, try a reusable one made from silicone, glass, metal or bamboo. If you don’t need a plastic straw, skip it!
With time, more and more people may get used to drinking their beverages straw-free—just like Californians adapted to bringing their own bags to the grocery store. Hard to believe it’s been less than two years since the state’s passage of Proposition 67, which prohibited grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies and liquor stores from giving out single-use plastic carryout bags.
What else can I do to fight ocean plastic pollution?
Keep in mind that plastic straws are one small part of a much larger problem. Refuse or choose alternatives to other forms of single-use plastic, such as disposable cutlery and beverage bottles, whenever possible. Ask stores, restaurants and your favorite brands to switch to ocean-friendly alternatives, and be sure to thank them—in person and on social media—when they do.