The Portland City Council voted on Monday night to ban the sale and distribution of plastic drinking straws, becoming the first Maine city to do so in an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic-based pollution clogging the world’s oceans and landfills.

Starting April 1, 2020, patrons at bars, restaurants and other straw-serving establishments will have to ask for a straw to be provided with one. The outright ban on the distribution of straws begins Jan. 1, 2021. The two-phase approach is designed to give residents and businesses time to adjust to the change. The measure passed 8-0, with Councilor Pious Ali absent.

Portland joins at least eight cities in California, including San Francisco, along with other major U.S. municipalities such as Seattle and Miami in banning straws. The ordinance also includes single-use stirrers and splash sticks. The measure follows other environmentally minded moves by the City Council, including the ban of single-use polystyrene cups and food containers, and the implementation of a 5-cent fee at most stores that distribute single-use plastic bags.

The city estimates that 100,000 plastic straws are used daily in Portland. In the U.S. alone, 500 million plastic straws are discarded every day or 175 billion straws annually, according to The Last Plastic Straw – an online movement to clean up plastic pollution.

There are already a range of alternatives to the ubiquitous plastic straw, including straws made of metal, paper, pasta, sugar cane and bamboo. Businesses in violation of the ordinance face a $100 fine for a first offense, and $200 for subsequent offenses recorded within a year.

There are five exceptions to the ordinance. Grocery stores are still permitted to sell bulk packages of plastic straws, and beverages that come pre-packaged with a straw are also exempt. Straws are also still permitted to be distributed at medical or dental facilities. There is also no penalty for handing out straws in the case of a locally declared emergency.

The fifth exception permits restaurants to provide plastic straws to anyone who has a disability or physical condition that requires the use of a straw.

Councilors briefly debated a change in wording, proposed by Councilor Kimberly Cook, to the disability exception. The councilors unanimously agreed to add clarifying language that no business owner is permitted to inquire about or challenge someone’s disability or medical need after requesting a straw.

“I feel like we’re all on the same page, I want to have a strong proposal, but at the same time I don’t want to discriminate against anyone who needs something,” said councilor Brian Batson, who proposed the ordinance, before he voted in favor of it.

Although most of the brief public public comment came from proponents, including from the Maine chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, one man opposed the straw ban on the merits, arguing that paper straws, with their tendency to soak through and wilt, have not come far enough to fully replace the petroleum-based versions.

“Paper straws are junk,” the man said. “I’m not going to drive around with a metal straw in my trunk so I can enjoy a milkshake.”

Another resident, George Rowe, opposed the straw ban as a gimmick and a waste of the council’s time.

“There is a lot that you could be doing in the sustainability front that you’re not doing, and this is a gimmick,” Rowe said. “This is not what we should be talking about, plastic straws. What the sustainability and transportation committee should be talking about is the $40 million that we have not spent over the last several years, cleaning up our storm-water outfalls.”

Several restaurants in Maine already have banned the use of plastic straws. Last year, a persuasive second-grade student convinced the city of Portland to implement Phoebe’s Rule, which led to a ban on the use of plastic straws at the Clock Tower Cafe in City Hall.

Phoebe MacDonald, who was 8 years old when she went before the City Council in July 2018, passed out aluminum straws to councilors to demonstrate an eco-friendly alternative.

“I did this for the ocean and for the lives of all the animals. They deserve to have a good environment. Our home is their home,” MacDonald, a student at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, told councilors.

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