Interview: Kyle Calian
Kyle Calian: From fighting crime, improving race relations and tackling poverty to addressing police brutality, developing infrastructure and ensuring a robust economy, there are a lot of serious issues facing New York City. Why are you picking a fight with straws?
Rafael Espinal: I think every issue that we choose to fight against is a serious issue. And though straws might seem like a small problem, [they’re] part of a more significant issue — and that's the amount of plastic and waste that is going into our waterways. Plastic straws make up one of the 10 most [common] pieces of garbage found in beach and ocean cleanups. Those straws are contributing to the fact that by 2050, if we don't decline the use of plastic, we will have more plastic by weight floating in our waters than we do fish.
As you know, very few bills that are introduced become law. How do you feel about the momentum behind the legislation right now, particularly regarding your strategy and co-sponsors? Is it going to be attached to another bill?
Yeah, I have to say that it's very encouraging to see the amount of support that people in New York have thrown behind this bill. Not only in the five boroughs, but across the country and across the globe. And we've had many great partners locally, like the New York Aquarium and the Wildlife Conservation Society, who have been doing the groundwork here to educate New Yorkers, educate small businesses and consumers on the effects of single-use plastic on our environment. I also have to thank the broader players like Lonely Whale and actor Adrian Grenier who have been carrying this campaign to cities and states across the country. A lot of the efforts, of course, are grassroots. A lot of momentum is being built around awareness, and New Yorkers being excited about being able to play a small but essential role in reducing the number of plastics that are being used.
Lonely Whale has been doing some incredible work. We spoke to their executive director, Dune Ives, in the last issue, actually. So then concerning the status of the legislation right now, what's it looking like?
I feel very confident that we'll be able to get a bill passed before the end of the year. We held its first public hearing, which is one of three steps we need to take to get a bill passed on the city council. At that public hearing, we received testimonies from the public about the ways we can improve the law. One of the major concerns that came from that hearing was the effect that this might have on the disability community who depend on plastic straws. So we're spending the summer figuring out which is the best way to move forward to take into account those concerns and make sure that they don't feel left out of the process. When we're able to find a consensus I hope to have a second hearing, which is a vote. After the election, it hits the general floor for the entire council to vote on the bill. Again, I hope to get this all done by the fall or before the end of the year.
Great. It's easy to sell this legislation to environmentalists, but how are you selling it to your fellow lawmakers and your constituents?
Yes. I have to say, I believe that New Yorkers, in general, understand the issues with plastics as a whole and the impact it has on our globe. I think the straw is a natural shift that consumers can make and businesses can make to ensure that they're playing a role in the broader conversation. Telling folks that just by skipping a straw in the morning when they order their ice coffee or with their drink in the evening -- that's got into their consciousness, and they're making that effort on their own. They're seeing that's a straightforward statement they can make without it interrupting their daily lives. So because of its easiness, I would say that it's had a lot of people participate.
I think it's an excellent initial step for people to see how one little decision that adds up over the course of an extended period of time can really have a tremendous impact.
It's amazing, because when I introduced the bill, I remember people asking, "Well, how about the lid? Or how about the plastic cup that goes with the straw?" That's the kind of thing you want and the kind of reaction you want to get from folks.
The thing is those pieces are recyclable; the straw isn't.
Right. That as well. There are many points on why the straw, in general, is terrible. But I think the straw has people thinking about other plastics in their daily lives.
It's definitely getting a reaction out of people. Do you draw inspiration from any other campaigns or movements in New York, or elsewhere, right now?
I have to say that all the campaigns that exist around the straw have joined forces. There's been great synergy between my office, Lonely Whale and the Wildlife Conservation Society. These are all the leaders in the conversation, so we've all been working in sync, making sure that we're working together to get this done.
Cool. Are there any other politicians, movements or other things that have inspired you to become the person you are?
For me, in general, what really inspired me to think about climate change and the city's role in it was Bernie Sanders’ campaign back in 2016, especially when he unapologetically stated that climate change is probably one of the most significant, most dangerous issues that the globe is facing and people living in the world are facing. To see and to be able to speak about it so clearly and so forcefully inspired me to look at how here, in New York City, I can make similar changes. Or to look at ways that the city can help with legislation that can have a considerable impact on the fight against climate change.
If you're successful with the straw campaign what is your next step for environmental policy in New York?
I'm actually introducing a bill tomorrow that would require all buildings in New York City to install green roofs.
I think that that would be a significant step in reducing the heat island effect, improving air quality, reducing stormwater runoffs that turn into polluting our waterways. I think it's just a silver bullet dealing with a lot of the issues that cities create when it comes to climate change.
Plus, it's beautiful. It brings wildlife back to the city.
Yeah, definitely. It'll be announced tomorrow, so I'm sure you'll be reading about it.
I'm very excited. Let's see. Another question on the straw bill. Does it have any connection with the new Nightlife Advisory Board? It seems like they're almost tied together on that.
Yeah. I've given a lot of focus to Nightlife's issues in general. I think Nightlife hasn't got it's fair shake here in the city council. When I was thinking a lot about the establishments, I was also thinking about how establishments can go greener. I thought that the plastic straw, of course, tied into that conversation well.
That's great. I think the most common time that people continually use straws is when they go out for drinks.
It seems like the perfect tie-in.
It's also great to know that many, many businesses are joining the movement on their own here in New York. A lot of restaurants and bars are stepping up and spreading awareness in their own communities about the impact of the straw, which is encouraging.
I agree. On a personal note, do you own glass or metal straw that you use when you go to order a drink? Or do you go strawless?
I'm a strawless kind of guy. [laughs] I do own two aluminum straws, but I don't carry them. I drink without a lid.
And when I go to the bar, I drink my drink without a straw.
Yeah, perfect. Any other legislation we should know about that might be coming up?
When it comes to plastics, I have also introduced [a bill] a few months ago that would ban vendors that are located in our beaches and our parks from selling beverages in plastic bottles.
I look forward to continuing pushing anti-plastic legislation soon.
In general, who has been influential or mentored you throughout your career?
I draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of folks who are doing great work. I know I mentioned Bernie Sanders as being someone that has created greater awareness in the way I legislate. My local state senator and my local city council member were folks that gave me my first opportunity working in government. They supported me to run for office.
Can you think of a specific mentor you've had along the way that's really brought you out? I like to hear how people bring each other up. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Man, that's a tough question. I will say my local city council member Eric Ulrich gave me my first start in working in government and endorsed me to run for office when I first ran. Once I was in office, I drew inspiration from colleagues of mine who I thought were doing great work.
Cool. What are some of the more difficult challenges you have faced so far in the work you've been doing?
The most difficult challenge is trying to please everyone. At the end of the day when I do my work, I work really hard in making sure that I am addressing all the needs of all New Yorkers. But the reality hits when you find out that it's not possible. I find that very challenging to navigate.
And then finally, what are you most excited about in the coming years of climate policy and your own career? What are you looking forward to?
The revolution. [laughs] I was a huge Bernie Sanders supporter. I think it's exciting what's happening here in New York and across the country. I hope the energy transcends into 2020 elections.
There's been crazy momentum. I've been living in Richmond, and I've been active there. I'm from New York originally, and I was following the New York elections. When Alexandra Cortez … She had 50,000 followers on Twitter on the night of that election, and within a few days or a week she had almost a million.
It went crazy. Yeah.
I think there's a lot. We've got legs right now.
Super exciting. I think it's an exciting time, especially for millennials to be able to see people getting into office who reflect their demographics and their age. It's exciting. Or our, I should say. Our demographic and age.
If only we were all 35, right?
[laughs] Yeah, right. Exactly.
Right. Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time.
It was a pleasure.
Davis Burroughs contributed to this story.