Disability Rights Commission: Not supporting Madison plastic straw restriction proposal

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Madison, WI - The city of Madison is considering fining restaurants that give out plastic straws unless a customer asks for one first.

This ordinance's whole purpose is to cut down on the amount of waste, particularly of single-use plastics, in the city, but the proposal is drawing criticism from a number of groups.

Bella Sobah is the chair of the Disability Rights Commission, which gave its input on the ordinance at its meeting Thursday.

Sobah said she understands the need to take action on the environment, but for her and many others with disabilities, straws aren’t a choice.

“Often in restaurants, glasses are too heavy for a number of people, including me,” Sobah said. “I rely on straws, and when they're not available, it's really detrimental. I can't use a beverage without a straw.”

Currently under the proposed ordinance, restaurants would be fined if they gave out straws without a customer asking first: $200 on the first offense, $500 on the second and $750 every time after. Alder Syed Abbas, who helped write the ordinance, said after feedback, he will lower the fine in the final draft.

Restaurants would not be penalized if the customer asks for the straw, but Sobah said she and others with disabilities having to ask the restaurant for the straw puts undue burden on them. Instead the Disability Rights Commission said the server should just be required to ask. The nonprofit Access to Independence recommended the same alteration.

“People with disabilities have several barriers being in the community,” Sobah said. “This would end up being another one.”

After discussing the ordinance for an hour at its meeting, the Disability Rights Commission voted unanimously not to support the ordinance after Abbas didn’t vocally support changing wording that would require the restaurant to ask the customer instead. The commission did however recommend Common Council send the ordinance back to the commission at its final draft where the commission could vote to support it.

Though the city hopes restaurants will save money with the ordinance by not handing out straws to every customer, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association said those savings are nominal. In a written statement submitted as public comment on the proposal, the association said the ordinance is unnecessary, as many restaurants in Madison are already making these changes on their own.

Vintage Brewing made the switch away from plastic straws two years ago, replacing them with a plant-derived alternative.

The restaurant also changed and posted its policy: straws available only upon request.

“If they want a straw of course they're going to get a straw,” said general manager Todd Hasselbacher. “We just want to give them one that we're proud to give.”

Hasselbacher isn't sure about the new ordinance and what it would do for businesses. He said the switch away from plastic straws was about 2 to 3 times as expensive, and he isn’t sure the cost balanced out with the company’s policy of not handing them out every time.

However Hasselbacher said the change wasn’t financial.

“Good companies make decisions based on their priorities and their ethics rather than what things cost,” he said.

Instead he thinks the change should come from the restaurants themselves, a stance the Wisconsin Restaurant Association has too.

“We believe this ordinance, with all good intentions, goes too far in interfering with a restaurant’s ability to operate in a manner which works best for its employees and customers,” Quam wrote.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled to go before the sustainability committee at the end of October before it goes to full council.