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Dear Santa Barbara: Your Straw Ban Sucks

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

On July 17, the Santa Barbara City Council passed an ordinance banning the sale or distribution of plastic straws. Beginning in January 2019, businesses and individuals are not allowed to dispense plastic drinking straws, including biodegradable and compostable straws. Violators are subject to a $1,000 fine and misdemeanor criminal charges including up to three months in jail. No, I’m not joking.

This ordinance is ridiculous on so many levels, but it’s downright offensive to people with disabilities. Many of us need straws to drink because of limited strength or coordination. Banning straws means we can’t drink in restaurants. We are de facto excluded from any food establishment in Santa Barbara. Unlike straw bans in other cities, there is no automatic exception for people with disabilities. To keep any disposable plastic straws on hand, businesses will have to “demonstrate, in writing, a public health and safety requirement or medical necessity to use the product.” I’m sure they’ll all be racing to cut through that red tape.

Although the Santa Barbara straw law permits “non-plastic alternatives to plastic beverage straws, such as those made from paper, sugar cane, or bamboo,” it doesn’t require them. Therefore, many businesses will almost certainly opt to eliminate straws entirely, and won’t even keep a few on hand for disabled customers. Having recently done a comprehensive review of straws for people with disabilities, I can say their alternative suggestions are among the worst types of straws I reviewed. Paper straws fall apart quickly and could become a choking hazard. I don’t know where one purchases sugar cane straws, but the drink stirrers which are made of actual sugar cane could pose a major problem for people with diabetes. Bamboo straws — and other hard straws like stainless steel or glass — could cause serious injury if someone with poor coordination pokes themselves in the eye or face. This includes not only people with disabilities but elderly people, kids and bar patrons who’ve had too much to drink.

Reusable plastic and silicone straws are a better choice. Silicone straws are flexible and safe for hot drinks. They are dishwasher safe and can be sterilized by boiling if needed — a challenge for some people with disabilities to manage at home, but simple for restaurants. But depending on who you ask, silicone may or may not be a plastic. Is it banned in Santa Barbara? Would you risk jail time to find out?

I can’t believe I’m even writing that. Jail for providing a straw? As if we don’t already have too many people calling the cops for no good reason. Now along with Barbecue Becky and Permit Patty, we have to worry about Straw Sally sending a SWAT team because we dared to drink.

I’ve heard many environmentalists say “If you need straws, just bring your own.” That makes sense up to a point. If a person is truly afraid they will die because of straw restrictions in restaurants, I feel like they should take responsibility for carrying straws of a type they can use, just as a diabetic carries insulin or an allergic person carries an EpiPen. I carry both reusable and biodegradable disposable straws with me because I need them. However, straws aren’t a prescription item, and we all forget things at home sometimes. Carrying straws if you need them is more like bringing a toothbrush when traveling. If I arrive at a hotel and realize I forgot my toothbrush, I can just ask and they’ll give one to me. That’s exactly how it should be with straws. Need a disposable straw? Just ask. There should be no judgment. The hotel clerk doesn’t say, “You must not care about your teeth if you forgot your toothbrush!” Likewise, people with disabilities who need straws shouldn’t face stigma.

By the way, buying disposable or reusable plastic straws for yourself in Santa Barbara may be banned too. The law states, “It shall be unlawful for any food provider or beverage provider to use plastic beverage straws, or to provide, distribute, or sell plastic beverage straws to any person.” Food provider and beverage provider are defined vaguely enough that it could be seen as applying to grocery stores. This means Santa Barbara residents with disabilities could find themselves unable to purchase disposable plastic straws in the grocery store — or even cups with reusable plastic or silicone straws. So how exactly are they supposed to drink?

There are so many ways to cut back on single-use plastic straws without banning them or stigmatizing people. Give restaurants a tax incentive to purchase safe reusable straws. Distribute free reusable straws at community events where people with disabilities, parents and others can get them. Build a composting facility for biodegradable straws. Pass a “straws on request” ordinance — with a requirement that restaurants continue to have straws and provide them without question to anyone who asks. But Santa Barbara didn’t do any of these things. Instead, its city council passed an out of touch law that criminalizes drinking out of a tube.

Santa Barbara, your straw ban sucks. It was poorly thought out and is objectively discriminatory. By failing to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, your city and the restaurants within it are violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. Unless you want to potentially face an expensive lawsuit, I suggest you repeal it immediately and replace it with a straws on request policy. In the meantime, considering that I can’t drink in your city without smuggling contraband straws in from elsewhere, you won’t be getting any of my travel blogging and tourism dollars. I encourage all reasonable people — disabled or not — to do the same and find a more welcoming place to spend their money.

Getty image by The Crimson Ribbon.

Originally published: July 24, 2018
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