City rethinking plastic straw ban

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. After two councilors sought reconsideration of a Gloucester City Council vote, a proposal to prohibit food service establishments from handing out plastic straws, effective July 2020, has up for some fine-tuning before being considered again. Here, discarded straws can be seen on a storm grate near Stacy Boulevard.

A ban on the use of plastic straws in Gloucester has officially been sent back to the drawing board — or at least back to the table of a City Council subcommittee.

The council approved the plastic straw ban last month before two councilors called for reconsideration. It took that step Tuesday night, returning the order for such a ban to its Ordinance and Administration Subcommittee by unanimous vote.

The questions that led to the reconsideration center on the need for some people with disabilities or certain food allergies to use straws made of plastic as opposed to paper or other materials.

"It needs more work, and it needs some consideration and input from people who live with these issues every day," said Councilor Melissa Cox. She and Councilor Val Gilman had filed separate motions for the reconsideration. 

Subcommittee Chairman Steve LeBlanc and colleagues Jamie O'Hara and Sean Nolan will give the proposal another airing when they meet Monday, with an eye toward revising and sending it back to the full council for another hearing and vote. 

"I won't be voting for this unless there is a way that we can equally protect (those with disabilities) and a way we can equally enforce it," Cox said Wednesday.

In terms of enforcement, Cox — who had voted for the ban in June — noted the quandary the current proposal would bring if restaurants, for example, were barred from providing customers with plastic straws, yet were required to provide plastic straws for those with disabilities who need them in accordance with regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"That's basically what the ordinance says," Cox noted, adding that the ADA does not allow providers of any services to ask the nature of a person's disability. "We say that a restaurant could be fined for using plastic straws, but then that they would have to have some to give to people who need them. How is the Board of Health (the ban's enforcer) supposed to sort that out?"

Councilor Kenneth Hecht, who proposed the straw ban, said he would support the exemption for hospitals and other health care providers that was in an initial version of the ban order. The exemption was stricken from it the night of the council public hearing and vote.

"There are substitute straws available that look identical and operate identically to plastic straws, and they are corn-based, so that could address many of these issues," Hecht said. "But if people are uncomfortable with this, if they want plastic straws in hospitals or if they are ill or handicapped, I would be in full support of recognizing that. So I would be in full support of putting the exclusion back in."

LeBlanc had voted against dropping the exemption as did Councilor Jen Holmgren. LeBlanc also voted "present" rather than for or against the measure the first time his subcommittee considered it.

LeBlanc noted that Monday's planned discussion is not a public hearing. But he said people will be able to ask questions, especially regarding a disability exemption. He noted that the existing proposal refers to any "food establishment," which would target supermarkets as well as restaurants and pubs.

"I want to be sure that we're not going to make it impossible for people with allergies or disabilities to go to Shaw's or Market Basket and buy the straws they need for their own personal use at home," he said. "That's why we have to be careful."

Hecht noted that the ban, as proposed, is not targeted to take effect until July 1, 2020. That could also change.

"We have time to work with this," he said, noting that the goal is to cut back on the use of all single-use plastics as a means of protecting the environment. Bans on the distribution of thin plastic bags by stores and polystyrene food and beverage containers within the city were approved by the council last year and went into effect Jan. 1.

"This would be another step," Hecht said. "At some point, someday, single-use plastics are going to go the way of the dodo bird, and I'm very proud of Gloucester being at the forefront of what's going to happen on a worldwide basis."

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705 or rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.

If you go

What: Renewed discussion of ban on plastic straws, held during meeting of City Council's Ordinance and Administration Subcommittee.

When: Monday, July 15, beginning at 6 p.m.

Where: First-floor council conference room, City Hall, 9 Dale Ave.