SLO council to restrict plastic straws, bottles and cups

Restaurants like Woodstock’s Pizza will still be able to provide plastic straws in self-service bins, where it’s the consumer’s choice whether to take one.
Restaurants like Woodstock’s Pizza will still be able to provide plastic straws in self-service bins, where it’s the consumer’s choice whether to take one. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Dine-in customers of San Luis Obispo restaurants, bars and cafes will soon have to request single-use plastic straws for their drinks instead of receiving them automatically.

And the sale and use of single-use plastic bottles and cups will be restricted from city events including Farmers Market and Concerts in the Plaza.

The two ordinances were passed unanimously Tuesday by the City Council to better protect the environment and prevent litter. The council still must formally adopt the ordinances after a second reading at a future meeting, and they would take effect March 1.

Meanwhile, the city also plans to increase its number of drinking stations that cater to reusable bottles, adding 10 over the next two years at locations like Sinsheimer Stadium, French Park, Mission Plaza and the Ludwick Community Center.

“The whole premise is to create awareness around this issue, not to punish people,” said Councilman Aaron Gomez. “It’s about getting people to ponder whether you need a straw or a plastic water bottle or whether you can do without one.”

With the help of environmental nonprofits, the city plans a public outreach campaign to educate businesses on the new laws, similar to how to it publicized its Styrofoam ban.

The “straws upon request” ordinance works like this: Customers who order “for here” or who sit down to eat will need to request a straw, but those with take out orders may be handed one with their drink without needing to ask.

Somebody ordering a coffee to go, for example, could be given a straw with their cup. Bins that dispense straws, like for 7-11 Slurpees, would still be allowed because it would be the customer’s choice to take one.

Council members say the new regulations will reduce the plastic waste in creeks and on beaches, as well as in landfills.

The Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo reported 1,363 plastic straws and stirrers collected at this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day in September, ranking the items tenth among the types of debris collected. ECOSLO reported collecting 2,504 plastic bottle caps (fifth on its list) and 1,989 plastic bottles (seventh).

Gomez said that plastic has infiltrated the diets of fish species and created heaps of ocean garbage. Recycling options have declined and China has announced it won’t continue to take foreign plastic garbage.

“Right now we’re sacrificing the environment for convenience,” Gomez said. “This is seriously costing the planet.”

Mayor Heidi Harmon said that current recycling efforts aren’t doing enough to reduce waste.

“It’s a pathway to a different behavior,” Harmon said. “I now keep a reusable straw in my purse. Maybe not everybody will carry them right away. But just like the plastic bag ban, eventually carrying reusable water bottles or straws will be a completely normal thing to do.”

Councilwoman Andy Pease said the straw ordinance borders on government overreach for her, but she still supported the initiative because it fits with the council’s broader efforts to eliminate plastic waste and implement its Climate Action Plan.

Councilman Dan Rivoire said that he was “nervous” about implementing the city-specific restrictions on water bottles, saying people now might choose to buy sodas in aluminum cans at Farmers Market, a less healthy option than water.

Rivoire also questioned the need to eliminate plastic cups, saying events like Concerts in the Plaza would be affected. He suggested a 10-cent surcharge for them instead as an incentive to deter their use.

City Hall surveys resulted in responses that heavily favored the ordinances, but concerns included the impact on events, the cost of adding filling stations, and inconvenience, with one responder saying the “straws upon request” law would be a “pain in the neck.”

“The city should promote reduce, reuse, recycle rather than (implement) additional regulations,” one survey respondent wrote.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune