How California's proposed drinking-straw ban would impact restaurants

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The restaurant industry may soon be faced with a new twist on the paper-or-plastic question — with potential legal implications.

On May 31, legislation moved through the California Assembly and is now headed to the Senate, requiring dine-in restaurants to institute a straws-upon-request policy.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time-use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans,” said Majority Leader Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, who introduced the legislation earlier this year.

As it currently reads, the bill would prohibit dine-in food facilities from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested by the customer. Warnings would be issued for first and second violations, and any subsequent violations would result in a $25 per day fine, at an annual cap of $300.

Organizations such as Berkeley-based The Last Plastic Straw has been pushing since its 2011 founding for food establishments to get rid of plastic straws. Across the pond, Final Straw UK, with its catchphrase, “Let’s make the world a little less rubbish,” is urging United Kingdom's Parliament to outlaw single-use plastic straws.

In March, multiple U.K.-based news outlets reported that McDonald’s is switching over to paper straws in its approximately 1,300 U.K. locations.

Even though U.S. restauranteurs aren’t currently required to remove plastic straws from their eateries, some already have.

Since its founding in 1987, Petaluma-based Amy’s Kitchen states it has always been about sustainability, and that extends to its fast-food restaurant in Rohnert Park, opened three years ago.

“The straws we use at Amy’s Drive Thru are commercially compostable and made from plant-based, renewable materials—they are not made from petroleum plastics,” said Renaud des Rosiers, sustainability manager at Amy’s Kitchen.

Santa Rosa-based Starting from Scratch Café switched to paper straws two weeks ago.

“We go through a lot of plastic in this business,” said Greg Long, who, along with wife Tammy, owns the café, which is located in the American Ag Credit building on Aviation Blvd. “So anything we can do to help out the landfills, we certainly want to be at the forefront of it.”

The changeover to paper straws is the latest in their ongoing effort to help the environment, the Longs said. Two weeks ago, the couple made the switch from plastic straws to paper ones, and simultaneously switched out their plastic cups and lids in favor of Karat Earth’s eco-friendly alternative, derived from 100 percent renewable sources.

They already employ recyclable napkins, to-go boxes and utensils, and plan to begin encouraging customers to bring their own cups to the cafe.

The switch in straws was a change the Longs would have made sooner, they said, but didn’t want to waste thousands of plastic straws leftover from when they used to make snow cones for a catering client.

Cost-wise, the Longs said they incurred a 25 percent increase by changing over to paper straws, and another 25 percent hike for the environmentally friendly cups and lids.

But the increased cost amounts to a wash, they said, because of other cost-effective measures they already have in place, namely handwashing reusable trays, dishes and utensils.

They have no plans to increase their prices because of the change, the couple said.

Tammy Long said she would like to see Calderon’s legislation become an outright ban, and include plastic cups and plastic lids, in order to minimize waste.

The California Restaurant Association, however, favors Calderon’s legislation as it currently stands.

“In the case of Ian’s bill, he’s not saying ‘Let’s ban plastic straws,’” said Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs at the state arm of the Washington, D.C., member-based advocacy agency. “There’s no opposition from us. It’s not restrictive to the consumer or to the business.”

A potential ban would be a different story, she said.

“Those businesses that still want to provide a straw to a customer would have to switch to another material, and often those materials are more expensive than whatever the restaurant was already using,” Shams said.

The cost restauranteurs could face with an outright ban would be significant, she said.

“I think what people don’t realize is that restaurants are (already) facing a long list of increases—rising wages, rising workers compensation and rising payroll taxes, and rent is doubling in commercial buildings,” Shams said. “I think it becomes one more cost increase in a long list of other increases that businesses are having to contend with right now.”

Palo Alto-based Bon Appétit Management Co., an on-site restaurant business with 1,000 clients across 33 states, last month instituted a companywide ban on plastic straws.

Bon Appétit, which offers full food-service management to corporations, universities, museums, and specialty venues, also said it won’t be replacing the plastic straws. Instead, the company will make paper straws available for customers with physical challenges, or upon request.

The rollout of the ban took effect on May 31 and will be complete no later than September 2019, said Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer at Bon Appétit.

“The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” Ganzler said. “Our clients feel like they’re contributing something positive to the world.”

Pacific Union College, a private liberal arts school in Napa Valley, is one of those clients.

“While the paper straws will cost a bit more … the benefit to the environment far exceeds the minimal expense of the straws,” said Jennifer Tyner, vice president for student life, enrollment and marketing at Pacific Union College. Bon Appétit and PUC will share the cost of implementing the change, she said.

Bon Appétit lists more than 50 California-based clients, including heavy hitters AT&T Park, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

The company also is extending its ban to include plastic drink stirrers.

“Bon Appétit has long set wooden stirrers as its standard, purchasing 9.1 million of them in fiscal 2017, but until now has not banned the plastic version,” the company said in a statement.

The Longs have their own take on drink stirrers.

“This is fettuccini,” said Greg Long, holding up Starting from Scratch’s version of stirring sticks for its coffee- and tea-drinking customers. “We did this because we had a customer who came in who was traveling from out of state. She said the coffee shop she visits at home uses fettuccini for stirring sticks. I thought that was a great idea. And the first thing Tammy says is, “not if you’re gluten-free.”

Starting from Scratch continues to offer its customers the option of wooden stirring sticks.

Contact Cheryl Sarfaty at or 707-521-4259.

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