Commentary: This Is No Straw Man Argument, but the Media Coverage Is Bad

As I pulled into to City Hall prior to the meeting on Tuesday, I noticed a news crew from a Sacramento news station setting up.  I figured they were here for the police issue or possibly the forward-thinking cannabis ordinance.  Nope.

“Straw ban,” the reporter said.  He said it sheepishly with a smirk, as though this were embarrassing.  And his embarassment was not for Davis, but that the Sacramento media only comes to Davis for weird things.

Six months ago, we had a path-breaking Community Choice Energy discussion on the agenda, we had Restorative Justice for Youths, and the media came to cover… wild turkeys.

Davis is often poked fun at for being the quirky liberal college town that it is, and sometimes it deserves that reputation.  But there are also times when we are on the cutting edge, and unfortunately the rest of the region doesn’t come out then – it comes out when they think we are doing something weird.

To me, the council should be working on branding a bit more.  Create a media narrative, engage the media on it.  One of the things I remarked on while watching the Chiles Ranch affordable housing discussion is how much better this council is at the little things than the council was ten years ago.

When the city slips up, we’re going to be there to call them to task – but the city also deserves credit for passing a broad and forward-thinking commercial cannabis ordinance on Tuesday.

Sadly, the city only gets coverage when it does something that is perceived to be weird.

Here’s the thing – the straw ordinance was on the consent calendar and it stayed on consent.  It didn’t take up council time discussing it.

Bob Dunning was quick to jump the shark on this one.  Complete with bad puns like “new ban may be the last straw for city council,” his column at least spared us from the inevitable “grasping at straws” comment.

“I am not making this up,” he writes, as though this were the most ludicrous thought in the world.

And of course he points out the contradiction that the straw ban would not ban them on take-out orders or in stores.  He argues, “Apparently, straws in take-out orders do not contribute to waste. And neither do straws specifically requested by a restaurant customer.”

Like the sugary-beverage ordinance, the straw ban is not a ban at all, it is an opt-in rather than opt-out policy.  The city is looking into ways to reduce waste and the ordinance achieves that minimally by requiring those dine-in restaurant customers to request a straw rather than to be given one de facto.

If you think about it, the ordinance makes a lot of sense.  You don’t really need a straw if you are dinning in – you can simply drink from the cup.  On the other hand, for take-out, there is a huge utility from having a lid and a straw to prevent spillage.

This isn’t a ban at all – it is a way to make people think more consciously about whether they need an item that will be added to the landfill.

The thing about all of this is that Davis actually isn’t being that weird.  The people who are behind the times are actually those who are poking fun of this.

The San Diego Union-Tribune in March noted that many activists have turned to straws, now that plastic bags have been largely removed from stores.  According to that article, Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day.

“This isn’t a new idea. As early as 2011, a 9-year-old named Milo was urging everyone to go ‘straw-free’ by asking people to take a pledge to request strawless drinks when dining out,” the paper reports.  “But last year’s passage in California of Proposition 67 — the statewide ban on carry-out plastic bags — is seen as encouragement for supporters of the straw-free movement.”

There’s even a documentary, “Straws,” that’s out this year.

The next day, the Orange County Register reported that a “growing number of organizations — some in California, some around the world — are working to reduce or eliminate the number of plastic straws in our daily lives.”

The paper noted that “anti-straw activists aren’t all pushing for a total ban. They say a step that’s less strident — making straws available in restaurants and stores only upon request — could be easy on consumers and businesses, and have some impact in terms of reducing the plastics problem.”

Once again, oceans are a concern, and straws are “a key part of a growing plastics problem that is choking our oceans and contributing to global warming.”

“In my children’s lifetime the ocean is projected to have more pieces of plastic than fish. There are islands of plastic trash accumulating in the ocean as big as some states,” said Abby Reyes, the sustainability initiative director for UC Irvine.

“We may think that my one straw… doesn’t make a difference. But accumulated together with everyone else’s straws, it does. The plastic we’re seeing in the ocean is like an archeological find.”

People like Mr. Dunning are mocking the notion that straws are an environmental hazard: “There are also folks out there who claim ‘Straws Kill Whales,’ so the next time you’re picnicking on Putah Creek, pack up your straws and bring them home to use on the kids’ next second-grade art project.”

At the same time, they mis-characterize the ordinance as a ban.

But we have learned from history is that it took 100 local cities and counties in California to pass plastic bag ordinances before the legislature passed a statewide ban that was supported eventually, though narrowly, by the voters.

Environmental movements take a critical mass and Davis is, for once, more out in front on this than most other communities.

That should be something that we should be proud of – not something to poke fun of.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Colin Walsh

    Davis’s ordinance does not go as far as other cities that have already banned all polystyrene straws (Polystyrene is currently the most common type of straw). Banning polystyrene still allows for other widely available and more environmentally friendly alternatives. The focus of environmental concern is not necessarily the straws, it is the polystyrene they are made of. If there is anything that is particularly weird about this news story, it is that Davis’s “straw ban” is not nearly as effective as what other cities have already passed.


  2. Ron

    “This isn’t a ban at all – it is a way to make people think more consciously if they need an item that will be added to the landfill.”

    That’s correct, but I guess it isn’t as amusing as calling it a “straw ban”.  (Seems strange that restaurants wouldn’t automatically do this, in the absence of a law.)

    “The thing about all of this is that Davis actually isn’t being that weird.  The people who are behind the times are actually those who are poking fun of this.”

    Also true.

    “That should be something that we should be proud of – not something to poke fun of.”

    It’s both.  (I often feel simultaneously “amused and proud” regarding Davis, when media pokes fun at things like this.)

    What about plastic utensils that aren’t needed for take-out food, eaten at home?  (Even when I’ve requested those items be left out, that request is usually forgotten.)

    Also – what about plant-based, biodegradable utensils?  (I recall using some at SFO.)

    (As a side note, thanks to David for fixing the problem that prevented me from viewing the Vanguard online, for the past couple of weeks.)


  3. Don Shor

    It would be better if one of the commissions could just form a subcommittee with local restaurant owners and retailers and develop a waste-reduction strategy to be adopted, rather than picking one item at a time and going after it. I realize cooperative programs are less newsworthy than mandates, but they’re probably also more effective in the long run.

    1. Colin Walsh

      This was not exactly as “one item at a time” as it seems on the face of it. A few weeks ago Davis past a polystyrene ordinance, but it left out straws. This just seems like a single item because it is trailing the other part of the policy.

  4. Howard P

    Ironically, it is precisely the take out straws, where there are fewer controls on disposal and containerization, that are likely to end up in the environment.  Little thought seems to have gone into the proposal.

  5. Jim Hoch

    Some of the items the CC takes up are ridiculed though very useful, like dark skies for example. I like seeing the stars and am grateful just about every night for the foresight of the council even though there like likely “dim bulbs” jokes.

    The straw issue seems a little petty to me.


    1. Keith O

      I agree, petty.  I heard Davis getting mocked on the radio yesterday, things like ‘haven’t they run out of things to ban there yet?’

      I’m headed to Putah Creek today and looking out for little straw boats making their way to the ocean.

      1. David Greenwald

        I think the question is whether or not you believe the city should move towards zero waste and what that means.  It’s not like Davis is operating differently than dozens of other California cities.

        1. Jim Hoch

          legislating straws in isolation is absurd. A larger anti-polyethylene review would make more sense. Did the CC look at the environmental impact of the ordinance? How many letters will be sent, how many new copies of books and pamphlets will be printed to ensure awareness?

        2. Colin Walsh

          Jim, Davis passed a polystyrene ordinance a few weeks ago, but it left out straws. This new ordinance is addressing straws only, but is part of a larger picture. The City has been doing outreach already, and is planning on doing more.

        3. David Greenwald

          How is it absurd to legislate an opt-in rather than opt-out policy on straws which inside restaurants (as opposed to take out) not a necessity and end up in the landfills?  500 million straws a day is an incredible amount of waste.

        4. Jim Hoch

          There is a company making straws out of straw

          “The straws are hand-harvested and hand-cut from pesticide-free winter rye grown in Germany”

          I think Yolo County Straws would taste better and it could be planted on the margins of the cannabis fields.


        5. Ron

          Jim:  “500 million straws a day” I wasn’t aware that we were using that many here in Davis. How many is that per person?

          In general, if you want to know where:

          the world is eventually/generally headed – look to the West (U.S., Europe).

          the country is headed – look to the West again (California, Oregon, Washington).

          California is headed – look to communities such as Davis.

          Davis is headed – look West again, to the Bay Area.

          That applies towards views regarding the environment, as well as social concerns – including issues such as acceptance of gay marriage, drug use, etc.  (Organizations such as ISIS are hopefully/probably an anomaly, in the long run.)

  6. Tia Will

    A while back a former editorial board member and frequent contributor to the Vanguard, Michelle Millet did a very useful series of articles on she was minimizing her family’s impact on the environment. I applaud every effort, large and small to lessen our deleterious impacts whether it is by thoughtless use or acquisition of items we do not need, over consumption, or discarding of items that can be reused, repurposed or recycled. I grew up at a time, chronologically similar to that of Mr. Dunning, in which our impact on the environment was not much on our minds.Our perspectives have diverged with me having become progressively more concerned about the circumstances we are leaving for future generations, while Mr. Dunning seems dedicated to deriding all efforts to change to a more conservation minded viewpoint. Ironic in a way since many would consider him to be the more “conservative” of the two of us.

  7. Janet Krovoza

    Thanks, Tia, my sentiments exactly.  I remember railing against the l’Eggs hosiery packaging — a plastic egg, of course — in a Lucky supermarket when I was 13, so about 1969 or 1970.  If only society were paying more attention then.  From an aesthetics point of view, too, I would much rather drink from glass than the hard edge of a plastic straw. I usually remove them — from now on I will be asking specifically for no straws, regardless of where I’m dining.

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