State backs down, won’t ban throwaway plastic bags

Paper or plastic?

No problem. That regular greeting at checkout counters doesn’t look to go extinct in Florida’s grocery and retail stores anytime soon after all.

State environmental regulators confirmed Monday they are backing away from a controversial proposal last year to make Florida the first state in the country to prohibit throwaway plastic and paper bags.

In a preliminary report released in October, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommended a “total ban upon all single-use retail bags from all retail establishments.” That ban would have been imposed after several years of steadily increasing user fees on plastic and paper bags.

Now, in its final report to the state Legislature, the agency makes a detailed case for why bags are bad for the environment and why efforts to recycle bags have been paltry.

But instead of recommending specific remedies for lawmakers to pursue, DEP is offering a dozen suggestions, with pros and cons for each, for what to do about disposable bags. Ideas range from a ban to greater use of biodegradable bags.

“I tend to look at it as a whole menu of options that the Legislature can pick from, and we are not recommending any one thing,” said Mary Jean Yon, director of DEP’s Division of Waste Management.

Although strongly endorsed by some environmental groups, DEP’s call to ban the billions of plastic and paper bags used in Florida every year was criticized by Floridians angry about possibly no longer having free containers to use for everything from picking up pet waste to organizing the contents of an RV camper. Businesses were generally opposed, too, and said a ban would be burdensome on customers.

Yon said her agency didn’t ultimately reject a ban because of opposition; instead, the agency changed its stance based on new information brought up during public workshops in Orlando and Tallahassee after the ban was proposed.

“We had a whole variety of people attending, and we got feedback all across the board — from ‘don’t do anything’ to ‘do everything,’” Yon said. “One thing that came through loud and clear is that different retail establishments are talking about the kinds of things they are already doing.”

Still, DEP doesn’t give Florida a very high grade for how it regards and handles retail bags.

The agency’s secretary, Mike Sole, said in a written statement about the final report that “88 percent of plastic bags and 63 percent of paper bags are thrown away rather than recycled, which can harm our natural resources.”

The Florida Retail Federation praised DEP for dropping the proposed ban, which would have left stores with few options for promoting reduced use, recycling or reuse of bags.

“For your clothing retailer versus your pharmaceutical retailer versus your grocery retailer, they all have different consumers with different needs,” said Samantha Hunter Padgett, deputy general counsel for the Florida Retail Federation.

Cecilia Height, a Sierra Club member in Florida and part of the group’s waste-minimization committee, said DEP’s report makes a well-researched and compelling case for why Florida can and should drastically cut back on disposable bags.