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San Diego Restaurants Work To Comply With New Plastic Straw Ban

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Earlier this year, San Diego adopted new rules limiting the use of plastic straws and utensils. But recently the city has suspended the enforcement of those rules because it's being sued. As KPBS reporter Prius Schriefer explains the new rule and changes to would have been confusing for businesses across the city.

Speaker 2: 00:20 Laura Ambross and her husband have owned Woodstock's pizza, a chain of pizza places across California for 18 years. She says, keeping track of all the ordinances and laws in each place she owns a restaurant can sometimes be difficult.

Speaker 3: 00:35 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.

Speaker 2: 00:48 Six months ago, the California legislature set limitations on plastic straws and utensils at full service restaurants. Customers have to ask for them, but Ambrose says that didn't leave her scrambling. Her restaurants stopped giving out plastic straws long before the ban. But she says the change did cause some challenges.

Speaker 3: 01:08 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 took the straws away and put them behind the counter and now we have to, you know, we tell our guests that they need to ask for a straw and then they parcel those out one by one.

Speaker 2: 01:28 She says, not only has she not been able to find a paper Straw supplier who can keep up with the demand paper straws are also more expensive than plastic, but she's happy to not use plastic because of its impact on the environment.

Speaker 3: 01:41 Well for me it's, it's more than just whether it's a convenience or an inconvenience. It's something that's a necessity. I feel like all of us need to do our part to uh, improve the environment.

Speaker 2: 01:54 Volunteers removed more than 20,000 pieces of polyester rain from San Diego beaches in 2017. That's according to Surf Rider Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of the ocean. They say plastic straws are one of the most common items they find during beach cleanups and are harmful to marine wildlife. But getting rid of plastic straws completely isn't a realistic option for everyone. Christian, a Bosco is the director of the legal advocacy unit for disability rights. California, a nonprofit committed to protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

Speaker 4: 02:29 A plastic straws are a tool that many of our clients with disabilities need to to get equal service at, at business establishment. So what we advocate is, is that, uh, the laws that band straws have exception so that anybody who request a plastic straw, they have it available for them to use it.

Speaker 2: 02:51 He says paper straws aren't effective for people with mobility issues and metal and glass straws can be dangerous for them

Speaker 5: 02:59 and listen to this try and the plastic utensils, I suppose to ask for them

Speaker 2: 03:02 over in city heights, Enrique, again to REIA from the city heights business association has been handing out bilingual flyers to small businesses outlining the new rules.

Speaker 5: 03:12 I, small businesses have a lot of stuff to keep track of. Uh, so adding something else is not gonna make it easier, but I think it's a matter of time. And eventually businesses, uh, just, they adapt, they make changes and then they just, it's part of just doing business.

Speaker 2: 03:32 Andrew Benevidez opened up a coffee shop in city heights back in April technically because his shop doesn't count as a full service restaurant where customers order at a table instead of a counter. He doesn't have to comply with the law. Benevidez says he wants to be environmentally friendly but not all of his customers are on board.

Speaker 5: 03:52 Since we opened up, we just went straight with paper straws just because it is earth friendly. Um, and some people do complain about it cause it gets a little wobbly after awhile. But now since summer's coming around, a lot of people are drinking more cold drinks. Some more paper straws are being used. So we're definitely going to see an increase in that.

Speaker 2: 04:12 Under state law, any full service restaurant would be charged $25 per day for a violation. The maximum of restaurant could be find is $300 a year. The law would be enforced by officers from the Environmental Services Department. Violations would be reported by customers of the business. Joining me is KPBS reporter Prius, Schriefer and prayer. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Now, if the San Diego band were being enforced, would it be more restrictive than the state ban? So interestingly enough, no it wouldn't. It's literally the exact same rules that have rules. Essentially plastic utensils or straws can't be handed out to customers, but they can be given to customers if customers ask for them who's suing this city over the plastic straw and utensil band. So it's the California restaurant association and we're seeing similar lawsuits to this one across the country. Um, whether it's state laws that are being challenged or city ordinances specifically what the California Restaurant Association is saying is that there wasn't enough environmental research that was done that's going to prove that this is going to have some sort of significant impact on the environment.

Speaker 2: 05:23 So they're essentially asking for more research. The city has said in response to their lawsuit that they will be able to provide that research. So time will tell exactly how that plays out. Did you find there was a certain level of confusion among restaurant owners? You know, you have the state ban in forests, but the city ban is now suspended. Do people understand what's going on? I would say no. A lot of them didn't even know about the rules in the first place. So then we actually found out in the course of reporting this story that that ordinance had been suspended, the enforcement of it. But another important thing to remember is that, you know, there is no plastic Straw police. So there aren't people who are going and doing raids of restaurants looking for plastic straws. The way that this was supposed to be enforced in the first place was by customer complaints and it was going to be people from the environmental services department that would then come and check on restaurants where they were receiving multiple complaints and then a sh finding the restaurants if they did in fact find that plastic straws were being, um, just handed out or readily available to all the customers.

Speaker 2: 06:31 So in a lot of ways, nothing has really changed. Um, it's one of those, you kind of do have to buy into the concept of this being more environmentally friendly to really go along with the band. No. The restaurant tours you spoke with seem to be buying into the concept, but actually the practical application is still the question that they're dealing with. Yeah. So Maureen, it's kind of interesting because I didn't really expect the story to be super controversial, but I'm a lot of restaurant owners who I wasn't able to interview on camera because they were actually, they didn't want to appear on camera saying this position was that, you know, they've actually found it to be incredibly inconvenient, especially small restaurants. They basically said, listen, every penny counts and paper straws are a lot more expensive. And so it's just not practical for them. But because you know, San Diego and California in general is considered such a progressive, environmentally friendly state, they don't feel comfortable, you know, publicly saying that they're against the plastic straw ban.

Speaker 2: 07:32 And what about, what did they tell you about what their customers are telling them? Well, I mean just think about it as a consumer, right? I mean, it's summertime right now in California. Everybody likes to walk around with an ice latte in their hand. How do you drink an iced latte without a straw. But as you know, the city heights business association representative who was handing out those bilingual flyers to the small businesses sort of pointed out that this is just going to have to be a cultural shift and perhaps five or 10 years from now, everyone will be walking around with a metal Straw. You may have noticed if you've gone to a Starbucks, they actually have created special lids for their ice coffees that are kind of like sippy cups that children would drink out of. And a lot of people are saying, you know, they're worried about coffee spilling on themselves.

Speaker 2: 08:14 So I mean there's just, it's, it seems silly but it is a hard thing for a lot of customers and consumers to really wrap their brains around that they suddenly are going to have to find a new way to drink their cold coffees or their cold beverages, um, without a straw. Well, the non silly part of this is the argument that the disability advocate in your feature had. Are there any exceptions in the state law for people with disabilities who need to use straws? Right, so both the State Law and the city ordinance say that plastic straws should be available and the reason for that is the disability rights lobbyists across the country have done a pretty good job of educating legislators about the fact that they believe that people with disabilities really do need plastic straws. Metal and glass draws are not a sufficient option because they're, they can be dangerous to people with mobility issues and paper straws. They just don't have that structural integrity to really hold up.

Speaker 1: 09:10 When the plastic bag ban was being debated, environmentalist said plastic bags were among the most common items found during beach cleanups. Now they're saying plastic straws. Do we know what impact the plastic Straw band will have on the environment?

Speaker 2: 09:26 Well, you know, I did extensive research trying to answer that question and that's sort of the argument that the California Restaurant Association is making as well is that there is no clear indication what banning plastic straws will really do for the environment. I think it's a commonly accepted that plastic waste is not good for the environment and there is definitely evidence of that across the world. Um, but whether or not plot banning plastic straws is really gonna make a dent in plastic waste is kind of unclear. You may remember there was a video of viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw up his nostril. And that sort of what started this whole discussion. And so a lot of people are saying that what this plastic straw ban is really doing is creating dialogue around the fact that plastic waste in general is bad for the environment. And that this is more of sort of a symbolic gesture that more needs to be done about plastic waste than actually potentially, you know, solving all the problems relating to plastic waste because of the straws. And I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Priya there. Thank you so much. Thanks.

Speaker 6: 10:39 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.