SWAMPSCOTT — Starting Jan. 1, if you want to enjoy that large iced coffee with the convenience of a plastic straw, you best bring your own.
Swampscott, which already imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags last May, went a step further at Annual Town Meeting last week and banned plastic straws and beverage stirrers. The rule will apply to coffee shops, restaurants and other stores that sell or serve beverages, and at town-sponsored events. A business could still provide a plastic straw to a customer who is entitled to accommodations under federal and state law.
The ban does not prohibit the sale of packaged plastic straws at supermarkets where they are sold separately of drinks. Nor does it say you can’t bring your own plastic straw to a cafe or restaurant for personal use. Exemptions were also allowed for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other medical offices. Doctors, nurses and EMTs can also provide straws to patients.
The ban is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020 — businesses in town can dispose of their remaining straws and stirrers for free at the DPW through Jan. 30. A series of fines for violations accompanies the new ban.
Town officials strongly supported the ban, describing it as a progressive environmental policy that will only help keep plastic litter off the town’s beaches and out of the ocean.
The bylaw cites the production and use of these plastics as significantly impacting the environment, contributing to pollution, burdening solid waste collection and recycling facilities, and entering storm drains that eventually lead back to the ocean and cause the potential death of marine animals who ingest the plastic.
Barbara Warren, executive director for Salem Sound Coastwatch, said that while she’s not familiar with the details of this ban, her organization is always glad to see any efforts to reduce the waste stream. Swampscott is also one of the towns the group regularly works with within Salem Sound.
“I think what’s important is that everyone realizes...how prevalent plastic has become in our life in such a short time, 60 years, and the huge impact it has on our ocean,” said Warren. “It’s really about the single-use plastic.”
Warren and other environmental advocates point out that plastic straws, bags and other materials take hundreds of years to break down into smaller particles and toxins. They pose a health concern for wildlife who mistake the plastics for food, and end up choking to death.
A 2016 study on single-use plastics found that 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced each year ends up flowing into the ocean. That’s like a garbage truck of plastic going into the ocean every minute. By 2030, that rate is expected to increase to two trucks per minute.
A recent study published by National Geographic also found that more than 90 percent of all plastic waste ever made has never been recycled, and that only about 8 percent of it has been incinerated. It’s estimated that, in the U.S., 500 million plastic straws are used every day.
“Banning straws in one little community, will that make a difference? Probably not,” Warren said, “but why are they doing this? Because it’s such a problem. It’s hard to get people’s attention. If this helps people become aware...it’s a good thing.”
Moving away from plastics
On the other hand, Warren says, the local beach cleanups Salem Sound Coastwatch sponsors have been turning up less and less plastic trash as more communities adopt plastic bag bans.
As of May, 116 cities and towns in Massachusetts have banned plastic bags, according to the Sierra Club. On the North Shore, this includes Salem, Beverly, Marblehead, Ipswich, Topsfield, Hamilton, Manchester, Gloucester and Rockport. Danvers’ ban is slated to begin June 1, and Peabody officials are discussing a ban.
There’s also movement for statewide legislation that would ban single-use bags in favor of paper or reusable bags for a small fee.
As for plastic straws, Swampscott is just the sixth town in the state to ban them. It joins Rockport, Andover, Chelmsford, Brookline and Provincetown. Larger metropolitan U.S. cities like Seattle have already gone this direction, as well as some large corporations, such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, who are phasing out plastic straws at their stores.
So what’s the alternative to plastic? There are options, Warren says. You could skip the straw entirely or use a water bottle, or there are stainless steel, paper, glass and bamboo straws. Warren favors paper because it decomposes very quickly in the ocean.
She noted that compostable plastic straws, while well-intentioned, leads to the same problem with regular plastic straws — when they end up in the ocean, they don’t decompose because the sea water is too cold.
Forging ahead on the paper campaign — like the Salem Public Schools, which made the switch to paper straws last year — Salem Sound Coastwatch is partnering with the city of Salem to reach out to local restaurants and other businesses to encourage them to switch too.
To that end, Warren said, Coastwatch has had a team of high school interns from Essex Tech, Beverly and Swampscott working on outreach to Salem restaurants and coffee shops since February. She said they’ve spoken to about 40 establishments, many of whom were receptive to learning more about the topic and possibly doing away with plastic.
There was only one business that wasn’t interested, and a couple of others that did make the switch but then later went back to plastic straws, she said.
“Just banning straws is not the answer,” Warren said — the goal is to reduce overall consumption and build public awareness of why it’s such a problem.
“People get angry when they’re told they can’t have something,” she said. “It’s really about understanding why.”
George Carey, owner of Sea Level Oyster Bar and Finz, said he and his staff are all about reducing as much plastic waste as possible.
“We’re trying to get out of the straw business completely,” Carey said, noting that plastic straws are mainly a component of dining out or grabbing food on the go. “Most of us, if not all of us, don’t drink our drinks with straws (at home).”
Carey’s restaurants first switched over to a biodegradable straw a year or two ago. Now, straws are only provided upon request, and paper ones only. Similarly, they’re trying to reduce and eliminate other plastic packaging. For takeout, it’s all brown paper bags.
Customers, for the most part, have been receptive to the changes, he said.
“A lot of us just need to get out of the straw business,” said Carey.