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By James Rainey
Last year, California became the first state to require that sitting restaurants offer plastic straws only to customers who request them. When seven states and a series of cities adopted similar proposals this year, it appeared that a wave was in full swing in the fight against plastic pollution.
But the new set of laws has created complications, including the opposition of corporate and free enterprise groups, as well as the struggle over which level of government should have the right to regulate single-use plastics. We still do not know where the anti-plastic revolution is going to spread.
As a result, environmental groups celebrate concentrated energy and attention on the issue, even though they fear that legislation may be relaxed or co-opted by corporate groups, which have advocated lower regulations.
"Simply putting seven bills in plastic straw is a step forward. Last year, nothing was happening at that level, "said Alex Truelove, director of the US consumer group PIRG, focused on zero waste management. "But it is a major concern that we do not see a ban on straw, but" on demand "bills. And many of them are really weak because they exempt most situations where someone would have a straw. "
Some of the new bills introduced this year limit straw regulations to sit-down restaurants, while allowing fast-food and casual establishments to distribute straws to everyone. Others include the "pre-emption" language that prevents cities from enforcing their own more restrictive rules regarding plastic straws. These limits are supported by corporate groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) based in Arlington, Virginia, a conservative business advocacy organization that helps states combat what the group considers as excessive regulation.
Despite opposition from restaurant groups and industries, progress on banning straws and other single-use plastics will not be halted, Kate Melges, who heads Greenpeace's anti-plastic campaign, e-mailed.
"As people continue to learn about the impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and health, progress is inevitable," Melges said. "More and more cities and states are starting to fight against single-use plastics, and even some of the country's largest companies are beginning to publicly acknowledge that reduction and reuse is needed to end this crisis." . "
Elk growing against plastic straws
Last year, more than a dozen cities decided to control the use of plastic straws, as well as California's "on demand" law, which came into effect on January 1 . The pace of change has accelerated in the new year. According to Scott DeFife, Vice President of Government Affairs of the Plastics Industry Association, 30 bills introduced in 22 states, he supports manufacturers of plastic products.
Groups such as PIRG and the non-profit NGO Environment America describe straw as a starting point for new plastic pollution controls, which they say have reached critical proportions. They cite research showing that every year more than 8 million tonnes of new plastic waste is dumped into the world's oceans.
While damage to marine mammals, sea turtles and fish has been the main factor behind anti-plastic campaigns, activists have recently increased their complaints about the potential effects of plastic pollution on human health. An alliance of environmental groups released a report earlier this month claiming that plastics were a "hidden" crisis.
Some activists view straws as a "bridge plastic" – highly visible but not essential for many consumers – which is a good target for initial legislation.
In 2018, Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws altogether. Washington, DC, followed, alongside smaller cities like Alameda, Berkeley, Manhattan Beach and Oakland, California; Monmouth Beach, New Jersey; and Fort Myers, Florida.
A backlash to the prohibitions
The plastic straw bans have encountered opposition not only from business groups, but also advocates for the disabled, who point out that some people need a straw to drink.
The wave of new proposals this year is therefore not so much the ban on straws, but the obligation for restaurants to give straws only to customers who request it. Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island are among the states considering this approach.
But the laws differ considerably from one state to the other. In Oregon, amendments were made to a bill to limit the number of restaurants sitting at a table that can accommodate hosts, with the exception of fast food and fast food restaurants. Another amendment would prevent Oregon cities from adopting more restrictive ordinances, including those totally banning straws.
Environmental groups in Oregon do not like a law that would prevent cities from banning straw. "This has never been implemented anywhere in the state of Oregon," said a memo of three environmental groups, "Prescribing the Solution to the Scale of the Sea" The state, definitely with preemption, is bad policy before we have implemented at least one city on the ground. "
In Colorado, which is also considering a straw law on demand, an amendment attempt to prevent cities from adopting their own rules has led the bill's sponsor to reject the proposal earlier this week.
In any event, the amendment removing the local authority on the issue of plastics seemed superfluous, as Colorado had approved in 1993 a law prohibiting municipalities from regulating the use of plastics, said Harlin Savage, Director of Eco-Cycle Communication, zero waste program. advocacy group. Boulder and other cities were ready to take action to limit the use of plastic, but state law was preventing them.
"This has certainly had a chilling effect on cities that want to take meaningful steps to reduce plastic waste," Savage said.
Cities are a key venue for experimenting with new environmental policies, as they can test restrictions and make modifications that are more responsive to the needs of their communities, and can generally act faster than state or federal governments, said Debbie. Raphael, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment.
"In the climate we are in today, cities understand very well that they can be at the forefront of toxic or plastics policy or climate change." said Raphael. "These preventative measures taken by states are at the heart of our ability to put in place a committed democratic system."
The source of the opposition
The Plastics Industry Association, which represents the manufacturers, has supported straw laws "on demand" as a "reasonable compromise", which aims at both reducing waste and meeting the needs of consumers, particularly People with Disabilities. DeFife, of the Plastics Industry Association, said the group opposed a total ban on straws, but did not comment on whether cities should be warned of state actions.
ALEC – motto: "limited government, free markets, federalism" – encouraged pre-emption bills as a way to support businesses. On its website, the group proposes standard wording for a bill allowing states to prohibit cities from regulating bags and other containers made of plastic or other materials.
The bill states that local regulations on single-use packaging could create "confusing and varied regulations that could result in unnecessary cost increases for retail establishments and food establishments to comply with these regulations."
Environmental groups argue that tougher regulation on plastics is needed because decades of plastic recycling attempts have failed miserably. The Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2015 that only 9% of all plastics had been recycled.
But the professional group of the plastics industry says that recycling systems and waste management policies simply need to be updated. Ultimately, the market should be able to decide if plastic products are used, the group said.
"We are looking at what will leave the most freedom to our constituents," said Jon Russell, National Director of the American City County Exchange, a division of ALEC. The laws governing plastics, he said, "only blur the right or freedom of an individual to use those particular items as he sees fit."
Environmentalists say the group of companies are less interested in individual freedoms than in supporting polluting companies and their profits. Greenpeace is among the organizations that said they would fight against attempts to deregulate plastics regulation with local governments.
"Local communities should be able to cope with the plastic pollution crisis in their cities and states," said Melges, a member of Greenpeace's anti-plastic campaign, "without DC lobbyists being parachuted into capitals of states to close them. "