The majority leader of the California State Assembly has introduced a bill that would, as written, impose jail sentences of up to six months if a restaurant worker hands out a single unsolicited plastic straw.
But repercussions have already spread beyond California, complicating a national movement to eliminate drinking straws. A report by Reason, a libertarian magazine, throws doubt on national drinking straw estimates — 500 million used each day — that have been cited by Calderon, many environmental groups and even the federal government in anti-drinking-straw campaigns.
Reason reports that the widely used figure is based on a telephone poll conducted by a 9-year-old boy.
A movement to eliminate plastic straws had been spreading across the country for years before Calderon’s bill came along, The Post’s Darryl Fears wrote last year. It was fueled by reports of trash-littered oceans and a viral video of a sea turtle found with a straw up its nose.
California leads the country on many environmental causes, such as fighting climate change, and straws are no exception. At least two cities in the state passed “straw-on-request” laws last year, barring servers from handing them out unless a diner asks. One of the cities, San Luis Obispo, did so after nearly 1,400 straws and stirrers were found on a nearby beach, according to the Tribune.
This month, a Los Angeles Times editorial cited dermatologists who believe “repetitive sucking may cause or exacerbate wrinkles” — among other concerns — and urged the restaurant industry to cut back on plastic straws voluntarily, “rather than waiting for a government crackdown.”
The day after that editorial ran, on Jan. 16, what some saw as the crackdown arrived. Calderon introduced a bill in the state legislature “creating a new crime” — the crime of giving restaurant diners unsolicited plastic straws.
“An estimated 500 million straws are used in the United States every day,” the majority leader’s office wrote in a news release, which called his bill “a step toward lowering these alarming figures.”
The bill listed jail sentences of up to six months, fines of up to $1,000 or combinations thereof for offenders. Calderon told The Washington Post that he never intended criminal penalties to be in the final law.
“It was meant to be a measured, reasonable approach,” he said.
When his office asked the California Office of Legislative Counsel to draft a “straws-upon-request” bill, he said, the agency drafted it into a section of the state health code with jail penalties. Because a filing deadline was approaching and the agency was “inundated,” Calderon said, he decided to amend the bill when it gets to a committee later in the year.
The conservative media found it first.
Straw repression headlines spread to Fox News and beyond. “If you think that jail time is really an appropriate response to straw-offering, then you should probably suck on one,” wrote Katherine Timpf in the National Review.
At Reason, writer Christian Britschgi became suspicious of the numbers behind Calderon’s bill. He noted that the same 500-million-daily-straws figure has been showing up in anti-straw literature for years — including at the National Park Service, which states it as fact in an article.
“To understand just how many straws 500 million really is,” the Park Service said in an article encouraging people to go straw-free. “This would fill over 125 school buses with straws every day. That’s 46,400 school buses every year!”
Britschgi traced the estimate from the government back to Milo Cress, a teenage anti-straw campaigner about whom The Post wrote last year. Cress reportedly told the Reason he came up with the number after surveying straw manufacturers by phone in 2011, when he was 9.
The Park Service didn’t respond to questions about the estimate from The Post.
Cress, who is now 16, did:
“When I was 9 I contacted three U.S. straw manufacturers to ask them how big the straw market was in the US,” he wrote. “There were no published figures that I could find, so that was who I went to.”
Cress said the National Restaurant Association independently came up with similar numbers, but could not recall most of the specifics of his own poll. He noted his 500 million figure included not only standard size straws, but juice box straw, party straw and “and the big wide red ones used for slurpies.”
Calderon’s spokeswoman, Lerna Shirinian, said his office stood by the number. “We have no reason to believe it’s not accurate,” Shirinian said. While his office could cite no other figures for national straw usage, Calderon pointed to reports from the California Coastal Commission, which counted more than 700,000 straws cleaned off beaches since 1989.
The majority leader has also been busy fending off questions about his bill on Twitter.
“You don’t write a bill and hope that the egregious parts (almost all) will be handled with amendments,” one user tweeted after Calderon promised to strip penalties from the bill. “STOP NOW BEFORE YOU GIVE THE STATE TO REPUBLICANS.”
A Republican candidate for governor, Travis Allen, has already seized on the issues, and suggested that people mail the assemblyman their straws.
Calderon said he wasn’t worried about the furor and expected his legislation to pass the assembly and become law, albeit with minimal or no penalties for noncompliance.
“It was unexpected,” he said of the backlash. “But, hey, we got everybody talking about straws.”
This article has been updated with comments from Cress.