There’s something missing at Centro Mexican Kitchen in Boulder. Once you take a seat, a waiter brings a glass of water, but no straw. Ask for one and you’ll get a paper straw.
The traditional plastic version is nowhere to be found.
“We’re trying to reduce the plastic landfill issues we’re all having,” said Dave Query, who owns Centro and about a dozen other Front Range restaurants. “This problem is just getting bigger and bigger, and so this is our tiny little effort at helping.”
Straws have become Public Enemy No. 1 in the global fight against plastic waste. Plastics now show up in the ocean, sea creatures and even human waste. Activists have singled out straws as a reasonable way for people to take action.
Query is far from alone in the movement. Other upscale Colorado restaurants have stopped handing out plastic straws. Much larger companies, like Starbucks and Marriott International, plan to phase out plastic straws. And Seattle made history when it became the first U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils in most restaurants.
Now, Colorado eateries want to get ahead of similar straw laws.
The Colorado Restaurant Association, which represents nearly 11,000 food and drink locations, backs a bipartisan state bill that would prohibit sit-down establishments from handing out plastic straws unless a customer asks for one.
If it passes, customers could still get plastic straws in drive-through and delivery orders, even if they didn’t request any. Self-service straw dispensers wouldn’t be affected. Restaurants that fail to follow the rules also wouldn’t face fines or penalties.
Even so, the regulation would move Colorado closer to California, which passed its own “straws-on-demand” law in 2018. There is one key difference, though. California’s version lets cities tack on additional plastic straw rules. The Colorado proposal explicitly bans local communities from going any further.
“Some things just need to be done statewide,” explained Nick Hoover, manager of government affairs for the Colorado Restaurant Association. “If you were to allow 64 counties, 300 plus municipalities, the ability to dictate what products you can use, how you can use them, it’s going to be virtually impossible for someone who operates in multiple counties to understand what standard they’re operating under at any given time.”
In other words, the association isn’t just interested in saving straws. It wants to save restaurants from cities that might want to require pricey paper or bamboo straws.
Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones, who doubles as the executive director of the recycling nonprofit Eco-Cycle, said her group can’t get behind the bill for just that reason. While she appreciates the statewide intent, the bill “has so many exceptions that I think local communities would want to go further. And it contains in it a provision that says we can’t.”
Aspen, Boulder, Crested Butte and Vail already have bans or fees on plastic bags. Telluride has even considered a Seattle-style ban on single-use plastics.
Jones said an obscure 1993 recycling law has held Boulder and other cities from going further. The policy says local governments can’t regulate plastic consumer products. While some have ignored the rules, lawyers have cited it to warn cities off of more aggressive action.
A separate Democratic bill at the legislature this year would carve out an exception from the limitation to allow cities and counties to regulate styrofoam containers. Kevin Bommer, deputy director for the Colorado Municipal League, said his group would like to see a discussion about scrapping the restraint altogether.
“Any legislation dealing with plastic recyclable materials needs to begin with repealing the preemption that impacts statutory municipalities,” he said. “Once we accomplish that, the league is willing to engage in a meaningful discussion of statewide standards that respect local control.”
The restaurant association’s Nick Hoover said he’d heard rumors that the 1993 limit could soon be up for debate. That’s part of the reason his group added new limits on local communities to its straw bill.
Bill sponsor Susan Lontine, a Democratic representative from Denver, has heard concerns about the limits on cities and counties and said she is willing to reconsider it.
“Colorado does love to talk about how we’re all about local control,” she said. “I would like to visit a little bit more about that specific area of the policy.”
State Sen. Kevin Priola, the lone Republican bill sponsor, said he’d rather not comment on specific points until the legislation is through the House and before his chamber. The first public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25.
Other Republicans were more willing to comment. Sen. Owen Hill said the state should just leave the whole straw debate to the free market.
“This isn’t government’s job,” Hill said. “Let restaurants compete over who can be the best corporate citizen.”