Balloons and Straws: Where's the Connection?

Think "The Graduate," but now the emphasis in the future of plastics may be on restrictions. California may become the first state to restrict access to plastic straws, and balloons could be next due to the harm they cause the marine environment.

August 26, 2018, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Restaurants in California would not be able to give out plastic straws unless a customer asked for one under a bill passed by the state Legislature Thursday and headed to Gov. Jerry Brown," reports Melody Gutierrez for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The bill is a light first step. It does not apply to the biggest source of plastic straw pollution — fast-food restaurants, cafes, delis or any takeout orders. The bill passed the Assembly 45-20 on Thursday, with Republicans largely voting against it. It passed the Senate 27-12 on Monday.

Plastic straws and stirrers are the sixth-most-common type of litter on state beaches, according to logs from the California Coastal Commission’s annual coastal cleanup days, which list the types of trash found.

Gutierrez adds that the bill "has been significantly watered down since it was introduced in January" by reducing the fines for non-compliance, presumably one reason why the restaurant industry didn't oppose it. However, there is no preemption clause in the bill that prevents cities from going as far as Seattle, which is where San Francisco appears headed.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last month prohibiting restaurants, bars and retailers in the city from giving customers plastic straws, stirrers or toothpicks beginning July 1, 2019. The measure is pending approval by Mayor London Breed.

In addition, at least seven city and county governments in California have already passed plastic straw restrictions, as noted in the July post on Seattle's ban.

Will other states follow in California's path should Gov. Brown sign AB 1884?

Don't count on it. In fact, if precedent is to be followed, it's more likely that the state's straw restriction would have a boomerang effect similar to the plastic bag ban.

Following in the footsteps of Arizona and Missouri in 2015 and Idaho in 2016, Michigan passed legislation to preempt cities or counties from regulating single-use plastic bags or other disposable containers. Other than Hawaii, California remains the only state to ban single-use plastic bags.

Balloons come under scrutiny

Associated Press reporter Candice Choi drew a connection between balloons and plastic straws – plastic pollution in the ocean.

"The issue of straws has really broadened the marine debris issue," says Emma Tonge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

In April, the Town of New Shoreham, R.I., banned the sale, distribution, and use of all balloons on Block Island due to their contribution to ocean pollution and beach trash, according to WRPI News. 

Choi reports that balloon manufacturers, conservation groups, and government agencies are working to educate consumers to avoid releasing balloons, as they eventually descend and can be mistaken for food, such as jellyfish, by marine life. 

"We don't want to say don't use them at all. We're saying just don't release them," says Laura McKay of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.

California passed a so-called "ballon law", SB 1990 in that year, but the focus was more on preventing power outages caused by mylar (foil) balloons filled with helium.

Thursday, August 23, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle


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