• Cheri Newcomb

Jail Time for Plastic Straws?

National attention focuses on lawmakers and plastic straws this week as news cycled many media sources that “jail time” is included as punishment in the recent straw bans. Questioning the severity of using a plastic straw is one issue in question, as the topic of plastic pollution becomes forefront in the news, with many reactions denying that it is a problem of great concern.

No doubt, that serving jail time seems harsh when it comes to using a plastic straw. The context of the reports spurred many folks into thinking about where priorities should be on this issue. The story stemmed from a proposed Santa Barbara, California City Ordinance application, still in review before it can be passed.

Cheri Newcomb decided to find out more as inconsistencies in facts were flying rather rapidly through articles and interviews. “StrawSleeves, my company, is supported by people making individual choices to choose non plastic reusables over single use items.” states Cheri. “It is my customers that inspire me and spur me forward onto my own eco journey.” The philosophy of the company encourages a “circular economy”, rather than “linear economy” practices.

Straws have become a learning tool in recent years when it comes to plastic pollution. Some call straws the “poster child” of single use plastics. Most people can relate to using plastic straws. In most cases, it is not necessary for most of us to use one, which can be seen as wasteful. In addition, the size, shape and type of plastic are problematic and unrecyclable as they are tossed aside after only a few minutes of use. Adding to this, the plastic does not break down, staying in the environment to accumulate with more plastic that is tossed aside. When someone addresses the plastic straw, it usually spurs more thought toward other single use plastic habits like water bottles, cups, etc... The example of the plastic straw develops mindfulness about where our waste items go after we are finished using the item.

Cheri got in touch with Bryan Latchford who is instrumental in pushing forth the application for the City Ordinance for local establishments to stop serving plastic straws. During a phone conversation, Bryan explained that punishments such as fines and jail time come from the City Attorney’s offices as a means of enforcement (you cannot have an ordinance unless you have a means of enforcement). The city is currently discussing the proposal, so the written ordinance may still have changes in the policy before it is pushed through. It is noteworthy that the Americans with Disabilities Act is included within the ordinance to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities that require them to have access to plastic straws.

So, what is the purpose of the proposed jail time? Bryan explained that no one intends on putting anyone in jail over plastic straw distribution and certainly not for plastic straw usage. (There are reports circulating that a server can go to jail for serving a plastic straw). However, strict consequences recommended for ordinances give the city backup strength in the case of a problem of enforcement. He gives an example; if a large hotel located next to a stream (that runs into the ocean) refuses to comply with the ordinance, the city would then use education and outreach over several years time to convince them to comply with the ordinance. If this continues to be ineffective, the establishment will be fined, but a smaller fine, of maybe $100.00 [example] (not $1000.00). He went on to explain the the enforcement and penalties language written into the proposed straw ordinance is standard language that refers back to procedures in their City-wide municipal code, and that the enforcement language in the proposal or application does not state fines or jail time.

Bans, ordinances, and laws may pass the lobbying and application processes in different cities and states. Penalties for littering, jaywalking, and disorderly conduct, for example, have hefty fines, and yes…even jail time as enforcement methods. Maximum penalties are rarely used. It is the courts discretion case by case to view and judge each situation in the most extreme cases.

Are there bigger problems for city lawmakers to spend their energies on? Yes. Will addressing plastic straws be a starting point for change that could ultimately save our planet from our plastic pollution crisis? Yes. The best part of this debate is how the subject remains front and center to gain more attention to the subject at hand. If we all make good choices, there would be no need for laws, ordinances, bans… or penalties. Critics of the system may want to get involved with their local governments to see about suggesting changes with how this process is currently working. City Ordinance policy varies from city to city.

In a perfect world, we would all make choices that are respectful to each other and the environment we all share. Debates are important to consider as we strive for many common goals and learn how to better ourselves as a society. Global pollution problems know no borders, so to blame one country over another is futile and a waste of energy we might use to solve the issues at hand.

At StrawSleeves, the three R’s we choose to focus on are – Rethink, Reconsider, Reuse.

illustration credit: Anne Derrene

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