A proposal to regulate straws in Madison could be a step toward reducing single-use plastic, but the issue is highlighting more than environmental considerations.
Ald. Syed Abbas, District 12, is leading the charge to change Madison consumers’ behavior about single use plastic. The proposed ordinance would prohibit restaurants from providing plastic beverage straws to dine-in customers unless the patron asks for one.
"We will start with the plastic straw as a first step, and we will try to change people’s behavior," Abbas said.
But disability rights advocates worry the ordinance as written could increase stigmatization of individuals with limited mobility. And a restaurant industry group is concerned that the city is unnecessarily micromanaging local businesses.
Plastic straws are not recyclable. Their size and shape make them nearly impossible to remove from the recycling stream, Madison Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson said. Straws mistakenly placed in recycling will exit the stream as trash or get mixed with something else.
“You have to consider that straws could also still have the residue inside of them of what people consumed through it — so sugar from pop or chunks of smoothie — which has the potential to cause some problems at the recycling center, depending on how much of the residue leaks out onto other recyclables,” Johnson said.
There is no local data on how many plastic straws are trashed in Madison.
According to National Geographic, single-use plastics account for 40% of the plastic produced every year. Production increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015 with production expected to double by 2050.
Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from coastal nations, according to National Geographic. Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down.
“This is a sustainability concern with persistent plastic pollution, especially single-use plastic that can't be recycled,” Madison Sustainability Coordinator Stacie Reece said.
Bella Sobah, chair of the city’s Disability Rights Commission, said plastic straws are a necessity for people with limited mobility. Putting the burden of asking for a plastic straw on a patron who may have disabilities could create further stigmatization and isolation.
“This community is already facing a lot of barriers in society, and that’s one more thing I think we could avoid,” Sobah said.
Sustainable alternatives to plastic straws, like paper or metal, can cause discomfort. Sobah said paper straws disintegrate quickly for someone who may consume liquids slowly, and metal straws are not conducive for drinking hot beverages, like coffee.
“I do understand we need to take steps toward conservation and sustainability,” Sobah said. "We as a commission think it’s really important, but we have to make sure we are taking an approach that ensures people with disabilities are not left out because that is often what I see happening.”
The Disability Rights Commission will discuss the proposed ordinance at its Sept. 26 meeting.
The ordinance would only affect table service restaurants. Under the proposed ordinance, restaurants could still provide plastic beverage straws to take-out customers and patrons using the drive-thru window.
Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said regulation of plastic straws is not needed because Madison area restaurants are already responding to consumers’ concerns about reducing waste of all kinds.
“To have an ordinance with a very high fine for what ultimately becomes an employee making a mistake, we think is a little bit too far,” Quam said.
Currently, the ordinance calls for a $200 fine for a first-time offense, though Abbas said the amount is under review and will likely be lowered. Enforcement of the ordinance would take place through self-reporting.
Quam also said the move would not necessarily save restaurants money. If servers are responsible for handing out straws, restaurants would likely move to buying more expensive paper-wrapped straws.
Additionally, she said the ordinance is unrealistic for bars using plastic stirrers and picks for cocktails.
“We really don’t believe that this is necessary,” Quam said.