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Santa Barbara moves to ban plastic straws, Styrofoam

Wikimedia Commons/Horia Varlan

Santa Barbara officials decided this week to join other cities like San Luis Obispo in banning plastic straws and polystyrene. Most in attendance at Tuesday’s city council meeting were in support of the ban, but questions were raised about enacting one-size-fits-all rules for everyone.

For hours, city officials heard from environmental advocates and residents, many of whom brought children to speak in support of a ban on plastic straws. Accompanied by his parents, Weston Burrell addressed the council.

“I do not think it is fair for the sea animals to eat our trash,” Burrell said at the podium.

Cities and companies across the country are currently having these conversations about straws in an effort to keep plastics out of the oceans and local waterways. Starbucks recently announced plans to phase out single-use plastic straws by 2020.

Proposed alternatives include biodegradable options such as paper straws, but as it was brought up in Santa Barbara this week, a total ban on plastic straws disregards the reality of people who need to use them, like those with disabilities. 

“My sister is someone that uses a straw every single day of her life to take medicine because she does not have the muscles in her mouth to put her lips around a cup and to swallow properly, and so a straw is essential for her everyday living—whether it’s in a restaurant or at home,” Matthew Lowe said.

The council voted six to one to banish the use of plastic straws in Santa Barbara, but made exceptions for people with disabilities, the elderly and for children. Single-use stirrers and plastic cutlery are also regulated in a draft ordinance. They’re not totally banned, but they won’t be automatically provided to customers anymore.

Disposable polystyrene - a.k.a. Styrofoam - to-go food containers are out too. The council agreed unanimously to prohibit them in a separate ordinance Tuesday. Santa Barbara mayor Cathy Murillo said other cities have been surprised her coastal community hadn’t enacted these types of regulations sooner.

“Arroyo Grande was shaming me yesterday that we hadn’t banned Styrofoam,” Murillo said.

However, there was plenty of debate about how these bans might affect small businesses and how much time they might need to adjust. Ultimately, Santa Barbara officials decided to give businesses the ability to file for an exception to the new rules for a year, but no extensions after that will be given. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez said making difficult adjustments like these is necessary, and not unprecedented.

“It seems like throughout history we’ve used elements that, at the time, were acceptable and then learned they are horrible for our health,” Gutierrez said. “One being asbestos, another one being lead paint. There is a history of us realizing that the things we are using are bad for us and bad for the environment.”

The new plastic and polystyrene regulations are slated to go into effect on January 1, 2019.

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