Massachusetts lawmakers consider statewide restrictions on straws in wake of local ordinances

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

By Mollie Hersh
BU News Service

As more states, cities and towns across the U.S. pass plastic straw restrictions, pressure is mounting for Massachusetts lawmakers to take action on the issue. 

Lawmakers are considering two bills to regulate plastic straws alongside other environmental measures designed to improve statewide recycling programs and reduce Massachusetts’ carbon footprint. Several Massachusetts cities have already enforced plastic straw limitations, with Melrose’ local ordinance going into effect Dec. 1.

California, Oregon and Vermont have already passed statewide straw restriction laws, with California’s going into effect in January 2019. States including New Jersey and Hawaii are considering similar bills. 

In an unusual instance, Florida lawmakers attempted to pass legislation prohibiting local governments from enacting plastic straw bans. However, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May because the existing local bans did not harm the state’s interest and complied with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s goal to reduce plastic straw use.

Massachusetts’ Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture heard testimonies regarding the bills in October. Committee Chairman William “Smitty” Pignatelli said he had a personal attachment to one bill on the floor, H.4084. He presented on behalf of Keely O’Gorman, a 10th grade student who worked with the representative’s office to write the proposal.

Keely’s bill calls for restricting the distribution of single-use plastic straws in restaurants, which would be given out only upon customer request. 

Plastic straws have become a symbol of plastic’s harmful effects on the marine ecosystem. A video of a marine biologist pulling a straw out of a sea turtle’s nostril has over 38 million views on YouTube. According to a 2015 study in “Science,” approximately 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, a significant portion consisting of single-use items, such as straws.

“Passing this legislation would not completely rid our shores of plastic straw pollution, but it would be a first step in its reduction while also allowing the public to develop habits that use less plastic in their daily lives,” Pignatelli said in an email.

Keely’s is one of two bills regulating plastic straws. Representative David Rogers presented his own single-use plastic straw bill for restaurants, which would restrict single-use plastic straw distribution to request only, and imposes an additional fine up to $300 for violations.

Rogers said he was encouraged by the amount of media attention around his proposed legislation.

“This appears to have caught some fire in the public’s eye,” Rogers said.

Pignatelli said he did not see this other bill as competition but rather a statement on the importance of environmental regulation for single use plastics.

“The fact that other representatives filed similar bills is a testament to the innovative spirit of the people of Massachusetts in our desire to think of new ways to cut down on our state’s pollution,” Pignatelli said.

Not everyone at the hearing agreed single-use plastic was a significant environmental concern. Claire Galkowski, executive director of the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, said she considers measures like plastic straw bans a distraction from more serious environmental concerns.

Galkowski said while single-use plastics have negative effects, alternatives such as paper can have a greater overall impact on the environment.

According to a 2006 study by the U.K. Environmental Agency, paper bags emitted over three times the amount of greenhouse gases as plastic bags. They were also shown to consume more non-renewable resources and produce more solid waste.

“I don’t love plastic,” Galkowski said. “I just dislike it a little bit less than some of its substitutes.”

Plastic straw restrictions have received some backlash on behalf of business owners who argue that bans on single-use plastics will hurt small businesses that can’t afford more expensive alternatives.

There also has been a backlash from disability groups who claim that any attempt to limit straw use, including by-request bills, will increase the stigma for those who require a straw to drink.

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