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Colorado legislature considers a move to regulate plastic straws in restaurants

Posted at 11:55 PM, Feb 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-22 02:33:40-05

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DENVER — A Colorado State legislature committee is considering a bill to regulate plastic straw use in restaurants.

House Bill 19-1143 would prevent restaurants from just handing out straws. Instead, the burden would be on the customer to ask for them.

Colorado is just one of several states considering a move to regulate the product after a video went viral showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose that marine biologists attempted to remove. The video sparked a larger debate about plastic waste ending up in waterways, oceans and landfills around the world.

The last straw

For bill co-sponsor Rep. Susan Lontine, D-CO, the bill is a common-sense solution to a growing problem with plastics.

“What we’re trying to do a strike a balance that recognizes that some people do still need them but we do want to limit their use as much as possible,” said Rep. Lontine. “You just have to ask.”

Colorado’s bill is not as drastic as some cities that have proposed, and in some cases passed, legislation to ban plastic straws.

Instead, Rep. Lontine believes says this bill is about encouraging Coloradans to be more conscious of their waste since these plastics can end up in landfills, waterways and even the ocean.

“We certainly do need to do something. We need to encourage recycling where we can and we need to limit the use of single use plastics as much as we can, not just straws but all of it,” she said.

However, the bill does not have any type of enforcement or punishment plans contained within its text. So even if restaurants decide not to comply, there wouldn’t be any repercussions under the current form of the bill. Rep. Lontine says it would be up to the industry and individual restaurants to regulate themselves.

As for a complete ban, Rep. Lontine says that’s not feasible at this point.

“The Restaurant Association tells me that there aren’t enough manufacturers with the capacity to pick up the demand for paper straws,” she said.

Small straw, bigger problem

While plastic straws are contributing to Colorado’s waste, Scott DeFife, the Vice President of Government Affairs for the Plastic Industry Association, says they are not the issue.

“The problem with the straws is not the material it’s made of, it’s the size. It doesn’t properly get captured in today’s waste management structure because it’s too small,” DeFife said.

However, DeFife says he supports House Bill 19-1143 since it is not an all-out ban.

“We think they’re perfectly reasonable and far better than a ban on plastic straws. It’s a much more workable situation for restaurant operators,” he said. “There’s no reason to take a straw if you don’t need a straw.”

At the very least, DeFife believes the bill is causing Coloradans to take a critical look at their own behavior to consider whether there is more they can do to cut down on unnecessary waste.

He worries, though, that if this bill passes, people will simply move on and forget the issue without having made a true impact on the issue of marine debris.

“They give a false sense of accomplishment,” DeFife said.

The straws are recyclable or would be if they could be properly collected and processed through recycling centers.

While DeFife says he’s happy that the focus on plastic straws has started the conversation about the issue of marine debris, regulating straws alone is not going to solve the problem.

“What we need is a comprehensive, systemic upgrade for the waste management and recycling facilities across the entire nation,” he said.

The case for straws

While many consider straws a luxury, for some they are a necessity, like those with certain disabilities.

Jose Torres-Vega is someone who relies on a straw every day to drink and to take certain medications. Torres-Vega was born with cerebral palsy, which affects some of his physical functions.

“Look at my hand, my hand doesn’t have a lot of control. If I try to grab a glass filled with water or soda or wine, I am most likely - I will do two or three things wrong,” Torres-Vega said.

Along with having difficulty grasping the cup, he says he doesn’t have the ability to bring the cup up to his mouth without spilling some of the drink or possibly breaking the glass. He also isn’t able to tip the cup toward his mouth to take a drink.

“For me it’s a necessity,” he said.

Torres-Vega believes an all-out ban could constitute a human rights violation since he would have unequal access to basic things like water in restaurants.

However, he says it’s also important to take the environment and waste into consideration.

“It would irresponsible of us to only think about what would be good for our population,” he said.

The Colorado Cross Disabilities Coalition is also in support of the bill since it is a balance of trying to rein in plastic waste while providing straws for those to truly need them.

Grasping at straws

While lawmakers are considering the future of plastic straws, some entrepreneurs are using this as an opportunity to explore other options.

Paper straws have grown in popularity in many restaurants. However, thin metal, bamboo and even glass is now being used to make straws.

Melaine Avjean from Shell Creek Sellers says she too was guilty of contributing to plastic waste in the past.

“It’s habit if you walk into a restaurant and they put one in your drink; I would automatically use it,” Avjean said.

However, after learning about the amount of waste caused by plastic straws and the effects on the environment from her son, who is studying environmental science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, she decided she had to do something.

So, she started selling metal straws in sets of three with clever sayings on the bags. Avjean says she was initially hoping people who were looking for souvenirs or small gifts would buy the straws. What she wasn’t expecting was how much interest the straws would garner.

“We just added straw sets in November and I’ve probably done nearly $100,000 worth of business. It’s absolutely crazy,” Avjean said.

Avjean, who is so passionate about the straws that she wears a sweatshirt around telling restaurants she brought her own, sells her products at the Denver Botanic Gardens and Peace Cellar.

“It’s just the beginning, we all have to start somewhere,” Avjean said.

Making the move

Some restaurants are already making the move to paper straws like Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar.

“As a fish house, we think about the oceans all the time,” said Adam Reed, the director of operations. “It was clear it was something we couldn’t ignore and really had to act on quickly.”

The restaurant spent a lot of time looking for the perfect paper straw that won’t start getting mushy before the consumer is done with their drink.

In the end, Reed says they settled on a cocktail straw and drinking straw that won’t break down quickly. Because the stores bought the straws in bulk, it didn’t end up costing much more than plastic straws.

“It was basically dollar for dollar to the cost of the straw we were already using,” Reed said. “We were committed to the change, even at a greater expense.”

The House Energy and Environment committee is set to hear HB19-1143 during a meeting on Monday.