Best to ditch plastic straws

Honolulu Star Advertiser - July 18, 2018

The plastic straw is an easy target for environmental change. Because it’s largely unnecessary — and because of the need to cut waste that ends up in the ocean, of course — more than a dozen cities, including Seattle and several in California, have recently either banned it or are requiring eatery customers who want a straw to ask for it.

Hawaii’s Legislature and was one of three that this year weighed straw measures. While legislation in California and New York is pending, it has stalled here. Still, the push should continue.

Senate Bill 2285, which would make selling and distributing plastic straws here illegal — violators would be slapped with fines and mandatory hours of community serv­ice labor, such as litter pickup in public places — cleared the Agriculture and Environment Committee, but flat-lined in the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees.

In a rematch of debates about phasing out plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers, representatives of the food service community have squared off against environmentalists on this issue.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association has asserted that because a ban on slivers of plastic would not make a big dent in solving the overall litter problem, it’s therefore unfair to saddle restaurant owners with additional costs tied to replacing plastic straws with a paper or other products deemed as eco-friendly.

Moreover, the Hawaii Food Industry Association has added that a ban could be a tourism downer. In a statement, it said: “A plausible issue would be families coming to Hawaii looking to have a pleasant vacation, but getting thrown into a political debate when they ask for a simple straw for their child’s drink.” Really? It seems more likely that visitors enjoying our beaches and parks would gladly comply with a law that aims to reduce litter that can harm marine life and clog drainage systems.

The food service reps do rightly point out that we all need to get better at reducing waste.

Meanwhile, they maintain that roomier and more tightly secured trash bins in public places would help, as would a stepped-up effort to educate the public on proper disposal. Agreed, but having a policy in place would surely speed up the learning curve.

The plastic straws debate is already going global. Scotland and Taiwan have put bans in place. So have some heavy-hitter businesses, from American Airlines to Starbucks. Starbucks and other food companies have recently announced a phase-out of plastic straws and polystyrene foam cups by 2020.

And starting this month, American will begin replacing plastic straws, drink stirrers and flatware with biodegradable alternatives — eliminating more than 71,000 pounds of plastic a year. Sure, there are plenty of bulkier sources of plastic pollution. But even a small dent is a worthy effort.

The Surfrider Foundation rightly contends that single-use plastics, which are part of a fossil-fuel driven, carbon-emitting industry, should have no place in a tourism-focused economy that’s dependent on thriving environmental health.

As evidence that such a switch is doable, the nonprofit nods to its Ocean Friendly Restaurants Hawaii program, which now includes more than 100 restaurants that: offer straws only upon request; have switched to paper; or have entirely done away with straws.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard said recently that he intends to revive the straw bill for the 2019 Legislature’s consideration. Ideally, the plastic straw should be outlawed statewide. However, due to the struggles businesses in our island-based economy face in making ends meet, an “only-upon-request” intermediate step could be palatable.

Each year, as millions of visitors touch down in the islands to see our stunning landscapes and waters, we talk the talk about safeguarding our natural resources. Whenever possible, we should seize opportunity to walk the walk.