There are many ways to reduce one’s environmental impact — reusable water bottles, reusable coffee cups, reducing the use of plastic bags and, more recently, reducing the use of plastic straws.

Many large cities, including New York City, Seattle, and Miami Beach, have already banned the use of plastic straws. And Madison is right behind them.

Ald. Syed Abbas just proposed a city ordinance that would restrict restaurants in Madison from handing out plastic straws unless a customer specifically asks for one. While the ordinance would not technically “ban” the use of plastic straws in Madison restaurants, it would fine restaurants if caught handing out plastic straws to customers without request. 

The fine for handing out straws without a customer’s request would range from $100 to $750 $100 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense and $750 for any additional offenses thereafter.

The ordinance is scheduled to be presented at the end of October to the Madison Sustainability Committee before reaching the full council, but some Madisonians have already raised concerns about the impact of the ordinance on those with disabilities. 

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The Disability Rights Commission said the ordinance, in its current form, would create more restrictions for people with disabilities who often need straws to drink.

Bella Sobah, chair of the Disability Rights Commission, explained this issue in an article from Channel 3000.

People with disabilities have several barriers being in the community [and] this would end up being another one” Sobah said. 

The commission suggested the Madison Common Council revise the ordinance and then send it back to the commission for a revote. 

I fully agree with the Disability Rights Commission in that the ordinance should be more mindful of those with disabilities. But I also feel that the ordinance is only one small step in tackling the giant issue of how to slow environmental damage. 

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While banning plastic straws may feel like a huge step toward environmental consciousness, plastic straws make up less than 1% of plastic ocean-pollution according to a Stanford report

Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions spoke about the actuality of the bans.

“The risk is that banning straws may confer ‘moral license’ — allowing companies and their customers to feel they have done their part,” Leape said. “The crucial challenge is to ensure that these bans are just a first step.” 

While the banning of plastic straws is a great first step, as Leape suggested, there is truly so much more that needs to be done in order to stop the pollution in our oceans right now. 

Leape offered two points of focus: stopping the dumping of plastic into our oceans, specifically from countries that contribute the most to this, and removing plastic from the waste stream. Leape said only 14% of plastic packaging is actually recycled. 

This means more products should not only be recyclable, but also need to be made from recycled material. Furthermore, large corporations need to stop relying on plastic packaging and start engaging in more environmentally conscious business practices.

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While individual choices may slightly help, stopping irreversible damage from reaching our planet really relies on the corporations and businesses that produce millions of products for millions of people every day. 

Some citizens may feel ashamed for their environmental impact on things like waste, but according to the New York Times, household garbage only makes up about 3% of overall waste in America. 

I’m not trying to shame anyone for carrying around their own reusable straw or insisting their coffee be poured into a reusable mug. To those people, I actually say all the more power to you for trying to contribute to saving the environment one small act at a time.

Unfortunately, with the state of our planet right now, we cannot simply rely on the small choices of individuals and local businesses to make a difference. While the ordinance to ban public straws is a great place to start, environmental policy needs to tackle the issues that create the most damage, and these policies need to affect institutions that are bigger than just the restaurants in Madison.

Courtney Degen ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and journalism.