Santa Barbara may be the subject of national ridicule over the City Council’s move to ban plastic straws, but officials are not about to back down. Indeed, the ban is likely to be expanded to include plastic stirrers, too.
The City Council was geared up to formally adopt the bans on expanded polystyrene and plastic straws at its July 24 meeting, a week after it first voted, but Councilman Gregg Hart asked that the matter be delayed so plastic stirrers could be included.
“It occurred to me after the meeting that we didn’t dig in very carefully to the plastic stirrer issue,” he said. “It seems to me that folks made a credible argument that there are certain circumstances, medically, requiring plastic straws.
“I can understand how folks would be asking for plastic cutlery in certain circumstances, but I cannot … understand why we need plastic stirrers.”
Hart said renewable wooden stirrers would work perfectly fine.
“The idea of a plastic stirrer to me fits more into the category of polystyrene,” he said, referring to a kind of plastic used to make hot and cold drink cups and food service packaging. “It isn’t necessary. It is easly replaced by a wood stirrer.
“I didn’t bring this issue up at the time, but it occured to me that it was worth bringing up today before we passed the ordinance.”
Since banning plastic stirrers would be an addition to the ordinance, the city legally must send it back to the Ordinance Committee before the council can vote on that aspect. The matter is expected to return to the council in September.
The plastics ban was not intended to take effect until Jan. 1, so council members believed there was time to tweak the ordinance.
The council’s initial July 17 vote to ban plastic straws was met with resounding criticism nationally as well as overall confusion about the ordinance.
Fox News, Newsweek, People Magazine and The Daily Caller were among the dozens of national news organizations that reported on the ban. President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., even tweeted about it.
Visit Santa Barbara received so many critical comments, both on the phone and via social media, that it contacted a crisis communications consultant, a public relations agency and a social media company for assistance on how to deal with the outcry.
The team created a script with different responses depending on whether the caller was calm, angry or “really angry.”
The response to a caller who is “angry, highly emotional or uses political language (ex.: criticizing liberals)” should be “We appreciate your concerns, but unfortunately Visit Santa Barbara has no authority over policy issues. Your best bet would be to call the City of Santa Barbara’s Trash & Recycling services at 805.564.5631 or email email@example.com,” according to a document provided to Noozhawk.
The City of Santa Barbara exacerbated the uncertainty over the ban when it issued a misleading news release in late afternoon July 26, just before City Hall closed for the day.
Headlined “Council Continues Review of Proposal,” the release said the “Santa Barbara City Council reviewed a proposal to ban single-use plastic straws and voted to continue discussing the ordinance in September.”
The release linked to a city webpage with a slightly different statement: “On July 24, 2018, City Council moved to bring this proposed ordinance back to the Ordinance Committee for further revision,” with no reference to the real reason why the ordinance was delayed: Hart’s desire to add plastic stirrers.
Councilman Randy Rowse, the lone dissenting vote on the July 17 plastic straws ban, also wanted staff to ensure that the ordinance clearly separated the food-serving and retail sides of a business, and that straws would be available to people with disabilities.
“If you need a plastic straw and you are disabled, and alternatives to plastic straws are unsuitable because of your disability, you can request, receive and use a plastic straw,” Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent said. “Retailers are not covered by that definition unless they are serving food in the same way as another food provider or beverage provider.”
For example, Whole Foods Market could sell plastic straws on the grocery side of the store, but could not distribute them on the food-service side.
Pushed by environmental organizations, plastic straw bans are considered the first step in reducing plastic waste. Santa Barbara entered the fray after Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils earlier this month.
American Airlines, Disneyland and Starbucks are among the companies that have promised to stop providing plastic straws for their customers.
Mayor Cathy Murillo told Noozhawk that the city was not backpedaling.
“The City Council sent the matter to the Ordinance Committee because there were refinements needed,” she said. “(Councilman) Randy Rowse had concerns about how a caregiver would find plastic straws for a patient with disabilities. And Gregg Hart wanted staff to look at alternatives to plastic coffee stirrers.”
As for the threats of “jail time” for servers who provide straws to diners, Murillo said the city was never planning to fine or jail anyone for using a plastic straw.
“All of our ordinances make reference to the municipal code section that discusses enforcement and penalties,” she said. “However, I can say clearly that no one is going to get a $1, 000 fine or go to jail because they use a plastic straw or give one to a customer.”
City officials say restaurant patrons will not be required to show proof of a disability if they request a straw.
“If there’s one benefit to the national media, now people are a lot more aware that we need to be more careful about the plastic pollution we put in the marine environment,” Murillo said.
Restaurants interviewed by Noozhawk on Saturday said they were not concerned about a plastic straw ban.
“I hate wasting plastic,” said Alejandra Perez, a manager at Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant, 14 W. Figueroa St. “It’s a good idea that we’re not going to be using plastic straws.”
Brett Baker, a manager at The Neighborhood Bar, 235 W. Montecito St., said he doesn’t oppose the ban.
“It’s really a good thing,” he said. “A lot of people already prefer not to use straws. I don’t think it’s the end of the world.”
Ernesto Garcia, a manger at the The Natural Café, 361 Hitchcock Way, said the plastic straw ban makes sense, particulary for his restaurant.
“We focus on healthy food and the environment,” he said.
Garcia said replacing plastic straws with paper straws costs about 2 cents per straw, or about $2,000 a year.
“We’re going to stop using plastic straws,” he said. “It’s part of the business.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.