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Our View: Oh no, are plastic straws Duluth's next cause?

The first natural reaction, for most of us, would be a chuckle at these newest news reports: Ha! California and Hawaii are looking at banning plastic straws. The sippy sticks, apparently, are the latest scourge of our humanity, following past targets of outrage like single-use grocery bags, boxes in restaurants for leftovers, really big sodas, and lawn Jarts.

A second reaction, for many Duluthians, could be a question uttered as quickly as a chuckle can turn into a groan of exasperated concern: How soon before our City Council follows suit — like it did in following other cities, most notably Minneapolis, in restricting the sales of menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco, in considering a ban on grocery bags, and in its current efforts to enact workplace rules?

Worthy arguments can be made for such causes. (OK, maybe not so much the plastic straws one yet; the damning evidence behind that plan to ban, "that Americans use 500 million plastic drinking straws every day (and presumably toss them over their shoulder and laugh heartlessly as they walk away), actually comes from the work of a then-9-year-old activist and is based on telephone surveys," as Malia Blom Hill wrote for the Grassroot Institute in Hawaii, where she's policy director.)

While many truly local decisions that affect local residents are best made at the local level, issues championed recently by our elected city representatives have tended to be matters better tackled by state or federal government officials — or, in the case of workplace rules, in negotiations between employees and employers. Rules and regulations that apply broadly but change with every city boundary line cause confusion and angst. They well-serve few.

And any Duluthian could be forgiven for wondering what cause might be next to occupy our council's time while more pressing local matters take a backseat. Just last week, there was a resolution urging Congress to charge a fee for carbon dioxide emissions and provide a dividend for actions that offset greenhouse gases. Give Councilor Noah Hobbs credit for voting in the minority against the resolution. It wasn't that Hobbs doubts the reality of climate change, but, "I can't support a resolution that doesn't have tangible steps," he said. In other words, the City Council shouldn't be wasting its time on feel-good stances without direct controllable actions.

One city leader not worrying what council cause could come next is Mayor Emily Larson.

"I don't get too concerned personally about what could be seen as the next outrage," Larson said in an interview March 27 with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board. "I do see how the concern over an earned sick and safe time brings up concerns for a minimum wage. I have not heard that debate emerge, and I do not believe that debate is coming to Duluth about minimum wage. I can see how people can be concerned about 'what's next,' though. First it's menthol, then it could be (a smoking age of) 21, then it could be whatever else.

"Plastic straws? Actually, if you're going to ban any plastic, straws are a problem," she further said. "But I also think that policies reflect the wills of the people often in a groundswell of activism and activity, and I have yet to see a policy in Duluth that stepped out in front of a groundswell. Now a groundswell has different volumes, depending which side of an issue you're on."

Leave no doubt, though: A groundswell in California or Hawaii — or even Minneapolis — doesn't necessarily mean there's a groundswell of demand here in Duluth.

That seems especially true when it comes to plastic straws, the newest nasty in the crosshairs.

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