The Last Straw: California Bans Serving Straws, But Biggest Offenders Exempt

California is set to become the first state to ban restaurants from giving out plastic straws unless they are requested by a customer, following a new bill signed on September 20.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in order to reduce levels of plastic pollution. The bill prevents full-service restaurants from providing plastic straws as a default service, and allows them to be stocked and distributed only if asked for. Violating the ban will be punishable with a fine of $25 per day after two warnings, capped at $300 per year.

Convenience stores and, more significantly, fast food restaurants—the greatest source of straw pollution—are exempt.

"It is a very small step to make a customer who wants a plastic straw ask for it," Brown said in a statement. "And it might make them pause and think again about an alternative. But one thing is clear, we must find ways to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic products.

"Ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year," Brown continued. "Plastics, in all forms—straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc.—are choking our planet."

While California is the first U.S. state to introduce such restrictions, as concern over plastic pollution grows, it is unlikely to be the last. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils completely. Several Californian cities, including Malibu and San Francisco, followed suit. In July, Starbucks announced that it would cease serving plastic straws in all its stores nationally by 2020.

Some critics said the bans go too far; others say they don't go far enough.

Most Republicans are wary about the state interfering with its businesses, and oppose legislating restrictions. Climate activists, by contrast, complain that the obsession with straws is disproportionate and even a distraction from the structural causes behind climate change. (A ban that exempts fast food restaurants—by far the greatest offenders—is particularly prone to such doubts.)

There are also concerns that targeting straws adversely affects those with disabilities, who can depend on them when dining out. "For a disabled person, straws are an accessibility tool," Alice Wong, director of the Disability Visibility Project, explained to The Guardian last month.

But David Lewis, executive director of the Californian conservation group Save the Bay, believes it is an important first step.

"We want people to avoid creating plastic waste whenever possible, because it's an epidemic in our cities and in the bay," Lewis said. "People who really need a straw can still get one."

The law will go into effect on January 1, 2019.