The latest is Malibu, Calif. Before that came Seattle; Davis and San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and Miami Beach and Fort Myers, Fla.
They’re all cities that have banned or limited the use of plastic straws in restaurants. Straws, routinely placed in glasses of water or soda, represent a small percentage of the plastic that’s produced and consumed but often end up on beaches and in oceans.
Advocates said laws aimed at cutting back on the use of plastic straws can help spur more significant behavioral changes.
“I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plastic problem,” said Diana Lofflin, the founder of StrawFree.org, an activist organization based in San Diego. “Giving up plastic straws is a small step, and an easy thing for people to get started on. From there, we can move on to larger projects.”
The City Council in Malibu voted on Monday to bar restaurants from giving out plastic straws, utensils and stirrers. Similar measures are being considered in other coastal cities, including Berkeley, Calif. A bevy of restaurants across the country have also voluntarily stopped providing straws.
It’s not just happening in the United States. Scotland plans to be rid of plastic straws by 2019, and Taiwan is banning single-use plastic items, including straws, cups and shopping bags, by 2030.
Around the world, people have wrestled with the environmental effect of plastics, which do not naturally degrade and are frequently used once before settling in landfills, clogging storm drains or collecting in the ocean, often for long periods of time. Many countries have banned, limited or taxed the use of plastic bags.
Some of the leading organizations in the plastics industry have said they agree with the idea of reducing the use of straws, but have said laws are the wrong way to go about it. They haven’t fought the laws with the same vigor they used to oppose bag bans.
The American Chemistry Council has taken a softer approach to straw bans than it did with bags, suggesting that restaurants provide straws only when a customer asks for one.
“We believe providing straws through an ‘on-demand’ system gives customers choice and helps prevent waste by ensuring that straws are distributed only to those who need them,” Steve Russell, vice president of the organization’s plastics division, said in a statement.
Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, said in an interview that the group “has no problem” with restaurants offering straws on demand. He said that the association did not believe laws were needed to change voluntary behavior, and that the problem of ocean debris was complex, stemming more from inadequate resources for waste management.
“We, as a nation, are not going to solve our marine debris issues by banning straws in restaurants,” he said.
Still, interest is rising in the tactic. Mr. DeFife said straws had become “the new poster child” for environmentalists.
Demand for paper straws has spiked “astronomically” in the past three years, said Kara Woodring, a spokeswoman for Aardvark Straws, a paper-straw company in Fort Wayne, Ind. The increased sales have come even though the product is more expensive than plastic straws. Ms. Woodring said plastic straws are typically about a penny each while their paper alternatives are as much as 2 cents each.
Susan Freinkel, the author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” said in an interview that the backlash against plastic has existed since the 1970s, with more attention paid to the effects on oceans in the 1990s, but that awareness is much higher now.
She described the straw bans as largely symbolic, noting the amount of plastic used in them is “minuscule compared to the hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic that’s produced.” They get attention because anyone can spot them on the beach or a sidewalk, she said.
Advocates see straws as something the public can give up without a great inconvenience, Ms. Freinkel said. That change could lead them to thinking more deeply about their relationship with plastics, she said.
“We got hooked on plastic for very good reasons, then well into the relationship we realized there are downsides to the relationship,” she said. “And yet, we are completely dependent on them.”