State Politics

Banning the ban? New bills aim to prevent Florida cities from outlawing plastic straws

One thing is clear: the Florida Legislature wants to address plastic straws.

But that’s where the clarity ends.

Several bills floating around in the weeks before the 2019 legislative session take different tacks: One seeks to take the baton from cities like St. Petersburg and ban plastic straws and carryout bags altogether at the state level. Two others hope to ban bans – that is, prevent cities from taking up measures to regulate plastic straws.

The tug-of-war has cities like St. Petersburg caught in the middle. Last year the City Council voted to move toward a single-use plastic straw ban, becoming one of the first cities in Florida to do it and taking a posture that is becoming more popular across the country. Any state law on straws could render the city’s ordinance moot.

For Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, that’s the goal.

“If (cities) can make the case and show sound science that straws are really harming Florida beaches and sea life, then I believe the state should have a conversation about how to create a policy concerning plastic,” said Sabatini, who co-filed House Bill 603, which would pre-empt cities from passing their own straw regulations. A similar measure has been filed in the Senate.

On that point, St. Petersburg City Council member Gina Driscoll, who championed the straw issue locally, agrees: It should be tackled at the state level. That’s why she supports Senate Bill 502, which would prevent grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses that sell food from using plastic carryout bags and providing single-use plastic straws.

“We passed this ordinance here in St. Petersburg in hopes other cities would follow suit,” Driscoll said. “But ultimately we want our entire state to be more environmentally responsible, and one of the ways we can do that is a statewide restriction of single use plastics that are harming our environment.”

St. Petersburg’s straw ban, passed in December, was part of a three-legged approach to curbing the city’s non-biodegradable waste. City officials voted to ban foam containers on city property and at city events, as well as voting to eliminate single-use plastic straws within city limits by 2020. The third leg is a proposed bag fee ordinance, through which the city would charge customers at grocery stores a nominal fee for every bag they use.

The straw ordinance makes St. Petersburg a straw-by-request-only city through 2019, during which restaurants are supposed to only offer straws to patrons who ask for them. By 2020, St. Petersburg should be off straws, according to the ordinance, and enforcement kicks in with warnings and fines.

Fort Myers Beach was at the forefront of the straw fight. Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale both adopted some levels of regulation. In all, Driscoll said, about 10 cities in Florida have taken on straws.

Banning straws is a movement that’s gaining in popularity, in part because of a tragic video that shows a plastic straw jammed inches deep into the nose of a sea turtle, and stretches coast to coast; Malibu, Calif. banned them, too.

That growing popularity is what prompted Sabatini to file his bill. He said he agrees ocean plastics is a problem, but said straw bans are ineffective at addressing it.

“It’s silly that cities all around the state of Florida really believe that banning straws are going to have any measurable impact over the amount of plastic in the ocean,” he said. “I’d rather cities focus on real ways to preserve the environment. All these silly straw bans are just a distraction.”

Robert H. Weisberg, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, agreed with Sabatini’s characterization of efforts to ban straws.

“We have a lot of very pressing environmental problems, but I don’t think straws is one of them,” said Weisberg, who called himself an “environmental scientist but not an environmentalist.”

“I’d rather the attention be placed where it ought to be placed.”

If the pre-emption bills were to pass, it’s unclear what would happen to St. Petersburg’s ordinance, whether it would be rendered unenforceable or grandfathered in. Driscoll, though, isn’t concerned either way. She said a similar bill that was filed last year was never taken up by lawmakers. With all momentum at the straw ban movement’s back, she said, she doesn’t expect the efforts this year to get much further.

But if it were to pass, Driscoll said she’d go to Plan B. What’s that?

“Well, I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” she joked. “That’s not even something that we’ve discussed, as far as what if. Regardless, if it passed, I would encourage other cities to continue their efforts to encourage voluntary reductions. Because that could very well be all that we have left.”

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