State Politics

State senator prods Legislature to ban plastic retail bags

TALLAHASSEE — A much-anticipated report from state environmental regulators may spur Florida lawmakers to consider a ban on plastic retail bags.

State Sen. Lee Constantine, of Altamonte Springs, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s environmental committee, was adamant Tuesday about prodding the Legislature to act.

“We are working together to try to (increase recycling) — this is part of an opportunity,” he said. “If we don’t control or find a way to start reusing these better we’re never going to get there.”

Citing clogged landfills and roadside litter, Constantine pressed a Florida Department of Environmental Protection official for a solution to the “plastic or paper’’ question.

The 12 options identified by state environmental officials in a report range from an educational campaign about reusable bags, to fees or a complete ban.

Mary Jean Yon, the state’s director of waste management, avoided endorsing a particular idea. “We don’t claim to know the right answer on this,” she said.

The topic could have political implications.

The agency issued a draft report in October that recommended a graduated fee for plastic and paper bags followed eventually by a ban. But it rescinded the draft and the final version issued earlier this month contains a distinctly softer tone and no recommendations.

Yon said the state agency didn’t whitewash the report. “It was meant to start a dialogue,” she said. “In no way did we intend it to be the final product.”

A 2003 study found U.S. residents used 90 billion retail bags that year. In Florida, only 12 percent of plastic bags and 37 percent of paper bags are reused or recycled, according to state figures. Across the country, about 30 states have enacted or considered bag regulations.

The state’s business lobby — a powerful opponent to any change — succeeded in tucking a provision into Florida’s 2008 energy bill that prohibited local governments from banning plastic bags.

At the time, a number of Florida communities had been considering regulations, including Miami, Parkland, Key West and Sarasota.

“Retail bags are a very small part of Florida’s waste stream,” said Samantha Hunter Padgett, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation, who warned Tuesday of economic impacts on bag manufacturers. “It’s possible government may not need to intercede at this time.”

For most local officials, it’s an environmental issue. A 2008 flood in Marco Island was caused by drains clogged with debris and plastic bags.

But by putting the decision in state lawmakers’ hands, it means bag regulations are less likely.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said education, not a law, is the best way to promote reusable bags.

“It’s a cultural thing,” she said. “And I think [customers would] be kicking and screaming at the stores.”