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San Diego Restaurants Work To Comply With New Plastic Straw Ban

A sign displayed at Woodstock's Pizza near SDSU informs customers that they n...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: A sign displayed at Woodstock's Pizza near SDSU informs customers that they need to ask for a plastic start at the counter if they would like one, San Diego, June 25, 219.

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Earlier this year, San Diego adopted new rules limiting the use of plastic straws and utensils. But, the city has now suspended the enforcement of those rules because it's being sued.

Aired: July 9, 2019 | Transcript

The city of San Diego has suspended the enforcement of new rules that banned the use of Styrofoam at most restaurants and requires full-service restaurants not to hand out plastic straws and utensils to customers unless they ask.

The rules went into effect earlier this year, but the city is not enforcing them until a lawsuit from the California Restaurant Association is resolved, said Gerry Braun, a spokesman for the San Diego City Attorney's Office.

The new rules and changes to them have been confusing for businesses across the city.

Laura Ambrose and her husband have owned Woodstock's Pizza, a chain of pizza places across California, for 18 years. Keeping track of all the ordinances and laws in each place she owns a restaurant can sometimes be difficult, she said.

"Now in California, there's been a trend toward every municipality creating their own sets of laws, so yeah we have to be really careful because we're in six different towns," she said.

Last year, the California legislature passed a law limiting plastic straws and utensils at full-service restaurants. Customers now have to ask for them, but Ambrose said that change didn't leave her scrambling. Her restaurants stopped giving out plastic straws long before the ban.

But, the change caused some challenges, she said.

"The paper straw industry got overloaded, they couldn't keep up with the demand and so what we did as a first step is we put the straws away and put them behind the counter," Ambrose said. "We tell our guests that they need to ask for a straw and then they parcel those out one by one."

Not only has she not been able to find a paper straw supplier who can keep up with the demand, but paper straws are also more expensive than plastic, she said. But, Ambrose is happy to not use plastic because of its impact on the environment.

"For me, it's more than just whether it's a convenience or an inconvenience, it's something that's a necessity," she said. "I feel as though all of us need to do our part to improve the environment."

Volunteers removed more than 20,000 pieces of polystyrene from San Diego beaches in 2017, according to the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of the ocean. Plastic straws are one of the most common items they find during beach clean-ups and are harmful to marine wildlife, according to the nonprofit.

But getting rid of plastic straws completely isn't a realistic option for everyone, said Christian Abasto, the director of the legal advocacy unit for Disability Rights California, a non-profit committed to protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

"Plastic straws are a tool that many of our clients with disabilities need to get equal services at business establishments, so what we advocate is that the laws that ban straws have exceptions so that anybody who requests a plastic straw has them available to use it," he said.

Paper straws aren't effective for people with mobility issues and metal and glass straws can be dangerous for them, he said.

In City Heights, Enrique Gandarilla from the City Heights Business Association has been handing out bilingual fliers to small businesses outlining the new rules.

"Small businesses have a lot to keep track of, so adding something else is not going to make it easier, but I think it's a matter of time and eventually businesses adjust, they adapt, they make changes and then it's just part of just doing business," he said.

That's true for Andrew Benavides, who opened up a coffee shop in City Heights in April. His shop doesn't count as a full-service restaurant, where customers order at a table instead of a counter, so he doesn't have to comply with the law.

Benavides said he wants to be environmentally friendly, but not all of his customers are on board.

"Well since we opened up, we just went straight to paper straws just because it is earth-friendly and some people do complain about it because it gets a little wobbly after awhile," he said. "Now since summer is coming around, a lot of people are drinking more cold drinks, so more paper straws are being used, so we're definitely going to see an increase in that."

Under state law, any full-service restaurant would be charged $25 per day for violating the plastic straw rules. The maximum a restaurant could be fined is $300 a year.

If the city of San Diego begins enforcing its rules, that enforcement would fall to the Environmental Services Department. Violations would be reported by customers of the business.

By Reporter Priya Sridhar

Earlier this year, San Diego adopted new rules limiting the use of plastic straws and utensils. But, the city has now suspended the enforcement of those rules because it's being sued.

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