Encinitas explores limiting drinking straws

Hamburger servers and taco stand workers could be required to ask, "Do you want a straw with your drink?" if the latest proposal to reduce Encinitas’ consumption of single-use plastic items wins approval.

The city's Environmental Commission voted Dec. 14 to ask the City Council to consider approving an ask-first, then-distribute straw ordinance, and the issue is expected to go before the council early next year.

"It might actually save restaurants a little money by not giving out as many straws; it saves the city some trash pickup and litter; and it makes consumers more aware of the plastics problem," Commissioner James Wang said as he described his proposal.

Disposable drinking straws are a perfect target for the city's next campaign to reduce plastic waste because almost no one uses a straw more than once, they're not typically recycled and they can be a wildlife hazard, Wang wrote in a commission report.

"Sea life may be the most profoundly affected since straws float and are mobile in water," he wrote. "They can snarl marine animals, mimic food, and may be unwittingly consumed by sea life. A recent video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw painfully stuck in its nostril achieved infamous notoriety."

The National Park Service has estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws each day, or enough to encircle the earth more than three times, he added.

Known for its eco-friendly vibe and its beach culture, Encinitas has long explored placing limits on the use of disposable plastic items. The city banned the single-use plastic bags before the state did, and the City Council last year approved a ban on the use of polystyrene coffee cups and take-out food containers.

Wang, who was an active force in those campaigns, told his fellow commissioners he was recommending a different approach for the straw situation. Instead of a ban, he was suggesting a "softer approach," he said.

A total ban on the use of straws would face strong opposition — some people require straws because of health concerns — and this ask-first policy might achieve nearly the same trash reduction goals with far less conflict, he said.

His fellow commissioners were divided over the proposal. Several said they would prefer an outright ban on straws but could live with the compromise. Commissioner Amy Flicker, who was the lone vote against, said she could not.

"Let's just go for it and ban it," she said, noting that she recently gave up straws and found she could live without them.

Encinitas is far from the only community debating what to do about disposable drinking straws. Numerous environmental organizations are pushing cities, particularly ones in coastal areas, to take steps to become straw-free to reduce pollution and protect wildlife. This summer, the Berkeley City Council directed its city staff to look into banning the use of straws, while the city of Davis enacted an ask-first ordinance this fall.

Wang said he would like Encinitas to model its ordinance on the ask-first one in Davis, but make it apply to all of Encinitas' restaurants. Davis exempts fast-food restaurants and take-out places, but those places are major users of plastic drinking straws, he said.

Barbara Henry is a freelance reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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