City council stopped short of supporting a proposed ban on plastic straws and instead agreed to take a more gradual approach to reducing the use of straws in Newark.
Council voted unanimously Monday to direct City Manager Tom Coleman to draft a policy stating that restaurants should distribute straws only at the request of a customer. Coleman will devise suggestions for how to communicate the policy to local businesses and a means for judging the success of the initiative. The policy will come back to council for a final vote at a later date.
“We have responsibility as a government to protect our water source, and water begins locally everywhere. This is not just some plastic trash heap in the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, this affects all our communities,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said. “While the goal is to get to a ban, it’s more practical to start with ‘by request only’ with a very robust education campaign.”
The straw initiative is a recommendation from the Conservation Advisory Commission – a volunteer board that advises council on environmental issues – as well as a group of students from Newark Charter School.
The proponents pointed out that straws contribute to plastic waste and end up as roadside litter, noting that other towns elsewhere in the country have banned straws, including Seattle, Miami Beach and San Francisco.
The CAC asked council to either ban straws outright or adopt a city-wide policy requiring restaurants to provide straws on a request-only basis. Another option was to phase in the initiative over two years, starting with the request-only policy before moving to a ban.
“Straws are just the tip of the iceberg, I agree with that. But they are a special problem because they are not recyclable and they're very small and they do end up in places that are problematic,” CAC member Sheila Smith told council. “If you care about wildlife and you care about the cleanliness of oceans and water ways, you're going to be concerned about straws.”
The state legislature recently passed a law banning most stores from distributing plastic bags, but so far no Delaware government has tackled the issue of straws, according to Dee Durham, a New Castle County councilwoman and co-chair of the advocacy group Plastic Free Delaware.
“We’re looking to Newark to be a leader of this in Delaware,” Durham said, adding that she hopes the policy leads to consideration of more comprehensive bans on single-use plastic. “We hear from people, 'Why do you care about straws?' They’re sort of the on-ramp to this issue because most people can give up the use of straws.”
Several council members, however, expressed trepidation about a total ban on straws, noting they’ve heard from constituents who are opposed. Among the concerns is the fact that some people with disabilities rely on straws, though the CAC specifically recommended that a ban have an exemption for medical needs.
“I don’t think this is the time where we could generate enough enthusiasm from local businesses and the general public to completely ban them,” Councilwoman Sharon Hughes said. “The bottom line, instead of trying to police our way into it, is to create more of a public awareness. ‘By request only’ is a subtle but obvious message to the individual that there's a problem here. Perhaps starting out request-only will get us a lot quicker to no straws at all.”
Councilman Jason Lawhorn pointed out that many of the city’s restaurants have already made strides toward reducing straw usage.
Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen was the first in Newark to limit straws two years ago. Customers at Grain only receive a straw with their beverage if they specifically request one.
“It’s definitely a habit change, but it’s been well-received,” co-owner Lee Mikles said a few months after implementing the policy. “When you’re home, you never use a straw. Why is this any different?”
He added that between his three restaurants, he used to go through a million straws per year, but saw usage decrease 90 percent after going request-only.
Since then, the Newark Charter students went out to all the restaurants on Main Street and asked them to stop providing straws unless requested. So far, 16 eateries have signed on. Meanwhile, the Greene Turtle has switched to providing paper straws instead of plastic ones.
“There’s a big social movement in our town that's heading in the right direction,” Lawhorn said. “We should do things to support that."
Wallace added that a total ban could prompt backlash.
“Words matter,” she said. “I think a ban, while I personally would like to go there, for those types who may have oppositional defiant disorder, it triggers them when you say, 'Oh, you can’t use a thing.”
It’s not yet clear how the city will enforce a request-only policy and what, if any, penalties there could be for restaurants who don’t comply. Wallace said she would like to see incentives for businesses who cooperate rather than punishments for those who don’t.
Councilman Stu Markham said he preferred a stricter law but added that the proposed request-only policy needs to include a way to evaluate its success. Council should revisit the issue after a year to determine if the policy worked or if a ban is necessary, he added.
“I’m old enough that my first straw was paper,” Markham said. “I know paper is possible.”