BOSTON — In a push to reduce use of shopping bags and other plastics, environmentalists are taking aim at a new enemy — disposable straws.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are weighing several proposals to ban or restrict the use of plastic straws in bars and restaurants as part of a national campaign to cut the amount of plastic debris in the world's oceans. The bills will be heard Tuesday by the Legislature's Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
One proposal, filed by Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, would prohibit restaurants and other eateries from offering straws "unless requested by a consumer or selected by the consumer from a self-service dispenser." The proposal, which would go into effect in 2021, would allow "clean and sanitized" reusable straws.
Another proposal, filed by Rep. David Rogers, D-Cambridge, would impose fines up to $300 for restaurants that violate a plastic straw ban.
More than 500 million plastic straws are used daily in the U.S., many of which end up as a threat to marine life in waterways, environmentalists say. Groups such as the Surfrider Foundation, which supports a total ban on straws, say the actions are needed to curb pollution.
"We know that while public education and traditional recycling are important, they are not standalone solutions to our plastic pollution crisis," Melissa Gates, the foundation's northeast regional manager, said in a statement.
The straw issue has taken on a worldwide focus. Online videos showing a monster patch of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, plastic strewn beaches in the South Pacific and sea mammals stuck with bendy straws have fueled public outrage.
Several major corporations — including Starbucks and McDonalds — and entertainment venues have vowed to phase out straws.
Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said many establishments have already stopped offering disposable straws or scaled back their use.
"It's a cost reduction thing," he said.
But Luz, whose trade group hasn't taken a position, said the restrictions could be a challenge for establishments with drive-up windows or take-out service.
"You can't sell someone a Diet Coke or a Pepsi with ice without a cover — you need a cover and a straw," he said.
Two of the most common reusable alternatives — paper and metal straws — have drawn criticism for being wasteful or expensive.
Meanwhile, groups that represent the disabled have concerns that limits will negatively affect those who require the use of a straw. Health care groups also want exemptions for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other medical offices.
Lawmakers are also considering a statewide ban on plastic bags. A proposal calls for the phase-out of single-use bags common in convenience stores and supermarkets. Retailers would be required to charge a 10-cent fee for paper bags and allowed to sell reusable bags.
More than 100 Massachusetts communities already have plastic bag bans. Efforts for a statewide ban were recently derailed when groups on either side failed to agree on a watered-down version of the legislation.
Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says the average bag takes 1,000 years to decompose.
Environmentalists say straws are another disposable plastic that the world can do without.
Several area communities — including Gloucester, Rockport, Andover and Swampscott — have banned or restrict the use of plastic straws. So far, California is the only state to do so.
A law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year bars full-service restaurants from automatically giving out single-use plastic straws.
Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have imposed even more restrictive bans that include fast food venues.
The Legislature's Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture meets Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Hearing Room A2 at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.
Plastic straw bans in Massachusetts
Melrose (straws only available upon request)