New ordinance curtails use of plastic straws, stirrers in Somerville businesses

A city ordinance prohibiting the sale of plastic straws and stirrers at Somerville businesses went into effect on Feb. 9. The ordinance, passed by the Somerville City Council last May, aims to reduce waste and pollution caused by single-use plastics.

Under the ordinance, businesses in the city can no longer distribute or sell single-use plastic straws and stirrers unless they are requested by a customer.

Somerville Councilor-at-large Will Mbah, who originally proposed the ordinance along with Ward 7 Councilor Katjana Ballantyne, said that he understands that the ordinance will likely have only a small effect on the total amount of plastic waste produced in the community. But he hopes the ordinance will spark a conversation in the community about plastic waste and sustainability.

“We can no longer sacrifice the environment for our comfort,” Mbah said. “We’re trying to use these policies to create systemic change that will have a lasting impact.”

The ordinance will be enforced during routine health inspections and businesses found to be in violation will first be given a warning before fines of $100 and $300 are imposed for subsequent offenses. For the first six months, however, only warnings will be given, which Somerville announced last week in a press release.

The key issue with single-use plastics and straws especially is the difficulty recycling them, according to Mbah and other advocates of the measure.

According to the Associated Press in April 2018, Australian researchers estimated that approximately 7.5 million plastic straws litter beaches in the U.S., posing a threat to birds and marine wildlife which can die from ingesting them.

Straws will not be disappearing altogether from Somerville restaurants, as alternatives like paper and bamboo straws are not covered by the ordinance.

Customers at Magnificent Muffin, a diner and bakery in Teele Sq., have just started getting used to the new paper straws. While the alternative straws haven’t been received well so far, an employee there explained that despite the customer reviews and the extra cost of the new straws,  she supports the ordinance because she thinks it will help reduce harmful plastic waste.

Several blocks down Broadway, Alex Yates was handing out the last of the plastic straws at Kung Fu Tea in Davis Square. Yates, a staff member, said that the shipment of new plastic-alternative straws was on its way.

Kung Fu Tea serves bubble tea, a Taiwanese flavored tea, which often requires a straw to drink. Yates explained that the ordinance might actually help the store sell more of the reusable straws that it offers.  

The Somerville City Council worked over many months with small businesses and the Somerville Chamber of Commerce to develop the ordinance, according to Mbah.

He said that many small business owners are environmentally conscious and have given him positive feedback.

The city will, however, hold one session tonight and one in mid-March for business owners to get more information on the implementation of the ordinance.

Some disability advocates have raised concerns about the challenges straw ordinances such as Somerville’s could pose for members of the disabled community, according to Mbah. People with down syndrome and cerebral palsy, for example, may rely on straws to drink.

Mbah said that he and Ballantyne took the issue seriously and stressed that straws will still be available upon request by an individual. The ordinance provides an explicit exception for people with a medical need for plastic straws and for medical facilities; it also allows people to use their own plastic straws.

Another exception the ordinance provides is for schools in the city, who have another three months to implement the ordinance.

With the plastic straw ordinance implemented, Mbah is setting his sights on single-use plastic flatware next.

“These are all part of the same family,” he said.

The ordinance is not the first time the city has tackled the issue of single-use plastics. The straw regulation follows a ban on the distribution and sale of single-use plastic shopping bags the city implemented in 2016.

Somerville is not alone in expanding restrictions on plastic straws. Seattle, Wash., San Francisco, Calif. and Miami Beach, Fla. have all recently banned single-use plastic straws.

Tufts Dining Services announced via Twitter that it replaced plastic straws with biodegradable alternatives in October 2018.