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California's Last Straw

Twenty years from now an elderly Californian man will gaze longingly, with a tear in his eye, into the setting evening sun as his child asks, “Dad, what’s a straw?”

Plastic straws are next up on the political chopping block for California. A recent bill was introduced into the state legislator Ian Calderon, the Democratic majority leader in California’s lower house. Calderon’s goal is to reduce the amount of plastic waste affecting the environment. The law doesn’t out and out ban plastic straws, but penalizes waiters who serve unrequested straws with up to six months in prison and a thousand dollar fine.

I agree here in principle. Taking care of the environment is a fundamental necessity should humanity wish to continue its existence. However, Calderon’s bill is flawed on multiple levels.

First, take the basis for the law. Calderon claims Americans use five hundred million plastic straws a day. This number is absurdly high, and if true may lend some validity to the law. However, where did Calderon get the number?

The National Park Service reported in 2013 that recycling company Eco-Cycle had given them that number. Where did Eco-Cycle get that number?

Eco-Cycle got the number from the Be Free Straw Campaign the company took part in to reduce cycling. Where did the campaign get the number?

The campaign received the number from a phone call survey of straw companies in 2011. And who conducted that survey?

Nine-year-old Milo Cress of Vermont.

The basis for the law is a single survey conducted by a child. Ignoring that, much analysis on the part of environmentalists and others has demonstrated plastic does have an adverse effect on the environment. For sake of argument, let’s assume a single sample non-peer reviewed unpublished study arrived at the correct number of straws used by Americans. We should do some math to figure out the degree to which straws are used in the state of California. This will work only if its assumed the survey conducted by Mr. Cress shows an even distribution of straw usage across the United States.

California is the most populous state in the union boasting 39.25 million citizens, a little over twelve percent of the entire population of America. Twelve percent of 500 million is sixty million. Apparently, sixty million straws being used by 39.25 million citizens means (regardless of age, amount of times one eats out, etc.) a Californian will use, on average, 1.53 straws a day. Now, one should take into consideration the amount of times Americans eat out in a week. Data on this is relatively hard to come by, but a 2017 Gallup Poll revealed about sixty one percent of Americans eat out at least once a week. Again, assuming this number is applicable nationwide means, on average, there are fifteen million Californians not eating out on any given week. This number leaves about twenty-four million Californians using straws every week. Using the sixty million number, this raises the average number of straws (used per day) per Californian diners to 2.5.

The obvious issue with the above estimate is that it assumes all the straws are being used. For all we know, there could be a large amount of straws being thrown into Californian landfills. However, there is a distinct lack of studies regarding straws and straw usage. This leaves only a few scant numbers regarding straws, including Milo Cress’ study (conducted in Vermont). I don’t take pleasure in dissecting the study of an 11-year-old, but I also don’t believe his study should be basis for law. The idea law should have some rationale behind it is not new, this then beckons the question, why in the world would anyone push a straw ban when so little research has been done?

The answer is simple and the reason most politicians do what they do, to get reelected. In the 2014 election, Representative Calderon beat out the Republican candidate by only 3%. By California standards, the result was exceptionally close. Of registered voters in Calderon’s district, 48.47% are Democrats, and only 23.31% are Republicans (with the rest of the votes going Libertarian, Green, etc). All Calderon has to do to get reelected is push his party’s agenda. By doing so, he’ll maintain his base and win easily in the 2018 election. What’s something on the Democratic platform that would appeal especially to Californians? The environment.

Of course, any large scale reforms would take months to pass through the state legislature. The quickest and simplest route would be to implement a ‘fix’ for a problem that can be seen as good, but really is just a minute representation of a larger issue. If Calderon actually cared about the environment, there are plenty of things he could have been proposed.

Annually California dumps about 33.4 million tons of waste into landfills. Perhaps a program that increases recycling would be beneficial. This year, Californians who faced wildfires issued 12 billion dollars in insurance claims. Maybe a law that deals with fires would be helpful. Since the year 2000, California carbon emissions have dropped by less than 1% every year. Potentially a new law giving tax cuts to green energy companies would be of assistance?

Calderon’s straw ban is a pathetic attempt to appeal to the emotional side of his constituents. Not only is the basis for the law faulty, the practicality of enforcing a thousand dollar fine on waiters who bring out unasked for straws is ridiculous. Although, maybe its not too ridiculous to believe Californian black ops will be conducting covert sting operations at the local Waffle House.

Calderon, like so many others, may take credit for a doing a good deed, but it serves us well to remember in this instance, and in many others, politicians seek reelection rather than the betterment of Americans. If passed, citizens will certainly be dismayed as the straw ban revokes one of the last bastions of plastic freedom. However, dismay not, for there is a silver lining. Now every fifth grader can have the glimmer of hope that their science project can change the law.

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