Jail time for handing out plastic straws?

Since the problem with plastic waste in landfills – and even more so in the oceans – has gained traction, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to see what can be done about it. The liberal impulse for anything deemed unacceptable is to ban it, and that’s precisely what’s happened in Santa Barbara, California. But a ban isn’t any good without some disincentive to violate it, right? And the disincentive they came up with was potential jail time for anyone found distributing plastic straws. Katherine Timpf at National Review picks up the story from there.

The city of Santa Barbara has passed an ordinance that will allow restaurant employees to be punished with up to six months of jail time or a $1,000 fine for giving plastic straws to their customers.

The bill was passed unanimously last Tuesday, and covers bars, restaurants, and other food-service businesses. Establishments will still be allowed to hand out plastic stirrers, but only if customers request them…

Now, I’m a reasonable person. I may be a libertarian, but I’m glad that we live in a society with laws. For example: I am glad that if a person, say, murders another person, then that murderer has to go to jail. That seems totally fair to me. But six months in jail for handing a little piece of plastic to another person? I feel like you’d have to be bananas to think that’s even close to fair.

We should note that San Francisco wasn’t far behind in pushing a plastic straw ban and Seattle has had one in place for a while now.

Timpf goes on to reasonably point out that plastic straws (and we’re only talking about straws here) account for only 0.02% of the total plastic that goes into the oceans, and the United States only accounts for an estimated 1% of the total plastic that goes into the oceans. From that perspective, it’s fair to say that this ban affecting a couple of coastal cities is almost entirely symbolic because it isn’t going to measurably affect the amount of plastic waste being generated. And from that perspective, it seems equally fair to say that a year in jail for a waitress giving a kid a plastic straw for her milkshake is probably on the harsh side.

At the same time, however, that’s not to say we should do nothing. I wrote an article back in May about a plastic straw ban in Europe and at that time I agreed that this is a legitimate and very serious problem. Young and otherwise healthy whales are literally washing up dead on the shore because they’ve ingested dozens of pounds of plastic straws, bags and other garbage which they filtered out of the seawater along with the krill that they live on. There are islands of plastic trash floating in the Pacific and that stuff isn’t going to break down naturally for centuries or even millennia.

So what do we do? Surely there’s some middle ground between “screw the whales” and “throw all the waiters in jail.” We somehow got by without straws for a very long time and when they did hit the scene the earliest ones (in the 1880s) were made of paper coated in wax. For that matter, we’ve also had the technology to make cups out of wax-coated paper for quite a while. Big, substantial plastic items can be more easily collected and melted down for recycling, but the little, throwaway items are a growing problem (literally).

Everyone seems to be big on the idea of international, cooperative efforts when it comes to things like greenhouse gas emissions. Could we scale back some of this plastic waste in a similar fashion without having to regulate everyone into the ground? The plastic industry would take a hit, but perhaps their efforts could be redirected into replacement products with other materials. It’s just a thought, anyway.