Santa Barbara has joined the ranks of about 100 California cities that have already voted to ban Styrofoam food containers, and it has become at least the 10th to ban plastic straws. Plastic coffee stirrers and cutlery — knives, forks, spoons, and sporks — lived to survive another day but will be available only upon request. Exceptions will be made for people with handicaps severe enough to meet the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for whom the durability and flexibility of plastic straws is paramount.
The council also voted to allow a onetime-only one-year grace period to businesses that can make a convincing case to city finance czar Bob Samario that any of the alternatives are prohibitively expensive or otherwise infeasible. According to city officials, every restaurant within city limits has already been contacted about the ban. Only five reportedly expressed interest in seeking an exception.
Council deliberations on the twin bans were bursting with astonishing factoids and cute kids. Kira Redmond of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper noted that as many as 14 million tons of single-use plastics are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, enough, she said, to cover every foot of coast with five plastic bags crammed with discarded plastics. The time it takes for such material to biodegrade, she said, ranges between “450 years and never.” The permanent damage inflicted upon the aquatic ecosystem is hardly worth the “few moments of plastic convenience.”
Kathi King of the Community Environmental Council said that if people keep dumping plastics into the ocean at the current rate, the weight of plastics will exceed that of fish by the year 2050. King and Redmond both gently noted Santa Barbara was late to the regulatory party where Styrofoam was concerned. Carpinteria had beaten Santa Barbara to the Styrofoam punch. Picking up this theme, Mayor Cathy Murillo noted that the mayor of Arroyo Grande had shamed her earlier this week for not having acted sooner.
As dramatic as King and Redmond were, they were upstaged by a 9-year-old named Weston Burwell, who read what he called “a love letter to the ocean,” and then concluded, “I do not think it’s fair for animals to have to eat our trash.”
In years past, such bans would have occasioned serious debate in addition to heartfelt theatrics. But with the exception of Councilmember Randy Rowse — who supported banning Styrofoam but not straws — the vote was unanimous. For the majority of the council, the only question was how best to wordsmith the ordinance language to tighten the exemptions. Rowse sought to draw a softer regulatory line but got nowhere for his efforts. “Let’s invite people to care about the environment like [people] do,” he said. “They’ll exceed your expectations every time.” People should be given the opportunity to display “good behavior,” he said, before the council resorted to Plan B: “You better do the right thing, or we’re going to come after you.”
Councilmember Jason Dominguez countered that “we can’t always count on common sense,” adding, “We have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” Dominguez questioned what the “affordability” threshold would be to allow food and beverage vendors to use Styrofoam. Would a two-cent cost difference for a smoothie cup that would otherwise cost only three cents be enough to trigger the exemption, especially for smoothies that cost $8?
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon expressed excitement at being able to vote for the ban, saying Santa Barbara bore a “trifecta of responsibility,” stemming from its location on the coast, its affluence, and its destination as a tourist magnet. Oscar Gutierrez, the council’s newest member, expressed strong support for the bans as well, likening plastic’s impact on marine life to that of asbestos and lead paint found drenched in the soil throughout the city’s Eastside.
The new law goes into effect at 2:01 a.m. on January 1, 2019, allowing food and beverage merchants to eke out one more New Year’s Eve with their environmentally outlawed inventory.