The Disability Rights Commission voted Thursday not to support a proposed city ordinance that would fine restaurants for providing plastic straws without a customer asking for one first, according to Commission Chairwoman Bella Sobah.
The goal of the ordinance is to reduce single-use plastics to be more sustainable in the city. The proposal is set to go before the Sustainability Committee at the end of October before going to the full council.
Restaurants would face a $200 fine on their first offense, $500 for the second and $750 for every other offense. However, the fines will be lowered in the final draft of the ordinance, said Ald. Syed Abbas, District 12. Syed helped write the ordinance and is one of the city council members on the Sustainability Committee.
Sobah said the straws are necessary for her and many others with disabilities. The Disability Rights Commission voted unanimously not to support the proposal.
“I rely on straws and when they're not available, it's really detrimental,” Sobah said. “I can't use a beverage without a straw.”
According to the proposal, restaurants will not be fined if a customer asks for a straw. But Sobah said that it is an unfair burden for people with disabilities to have to request the product at all.
“We were very unsure as to whether the benefits outweigh the risks of the harmful impact it may have on the disabled community,” Sobah said.
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association said in a written statement that the ordinance is unnecessary since many restaurants are already working to reduce plastic straw use.
The WRA also said making the switch to providing straws only upon request likely results in nominal savings. Providing alternatives, such as paper straws, can lead to increased costs for restaurants.
At the Thursday meeting, several members of the Commission spoke about their personal experiences and doubts with restaurants. One of Sobah’s major concerns is that restaurants will stop purchasing straws altogether in order to be more economical.
“There is a concern that people with disabilities oftentimes face social stigma for asking for accommodation and this would be another situation in which they might be marginalized for asking for this item,” Sobah said. “There is this narrative now that straws are harmful to the environment, and if you ask for a straw you are kind of contributing to the pollution.”
Sobah stressed that the Commission’s vote was not a final decision, and they are hopeful to receive an amended version of the ordinance that responds to their feedback.
The Commission noted the value of Madison having a conversation about how to be more environmentally friendly and hope to find a balance between sustainability and disability rights, Sobah explained.
The Commission requested that the ordinance be changed so that servers ask customers if they would like a straw. Access to Independence, a Madison nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, recommended the same change.
In addition to restaurants being fined for offering straws before being asked, the Commission also suggested that restaurants be fined for failing to have any straws available upon request.
“We [should] explicitly say in the ordinance that the wait staff must ask whether they want a straw or not,” Sobah said. “Instead of putting that burden on the consumer and specifically on people with disabilities, we [should] shift the burden onto the restaurant industry.”