Other Florida cities already have prohibitions on straws and polystyrene

SARASOTA — Sarasota might become the latest jurisdiction in a growing list of cities spanning the state to ban single-use plastic straws and polystyrene.

The Sarasota City Commission is considering banning single-use plastic straws citywide and polystyrene in public places, such as city buildings, events, sidewalks and on properties in which private entities lease space from the city. If the commission ultimately decides to prohibit either plastic product, the move would follow in the footsteps of other cities enacting similar bans of straws or polystyrene, including St. Petersburg, Sanibel, Fort Myers, Hollywood, Surfside, Coral Gables and Miami Beach.

“We have a huge plastic problem,” the city’s sustainability manager Stevie Freeman-Montes said, adding before the city institutes a ban it could launch an educational campaign with the local citizens group Rethinking Plastic Sarasota to get business voluntarily on board.

City officials in the coastal community worry plastics are littering beaches and tainting its water — and they’re right.

“I’m generally not in favor of regulating small business when hopefully we could get them to do the right thing on their own, but one thing that jumps out at me are the events, because we do have a lot of large events very close to the water and I’m not confident that a lot of that trash doesn’t end up in our stormwater drains,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said at last week’s meeting.

According to local data cited by city officials, 17,049 bottle caps, 6,649 straws and stirrers, 6,192 plastic bags and 1,562 foam take-out containers were collected from local beaches from 2013 to 2017. The figures for the same time period also show 70,424 cigarette butts and 2,113 plastic lids were also collected from area coastlines. The problem with plastics is they don’t biodegrade in a marine environment, officials said. While plastics do break into smaller pieces, in the process, they become toxic and poison wildlife and water.

The City Commission asked its staff how enforcement would work if a ban were to be implemented. The staff plans to report later on a potential ordinance for consideration and possible enforcement procedures.

Currently, local regulation of plastic straws is not pre-empted by the state, but state laws do preclude local governments from regulating polystyrene in commercial establishments, though not on public property or public rights-of-way. The state does not allow cities and counties to regulate plastic bags.

“For the moment, while I would love to ban plastic bags, I think we do need to not put ourselves in a situation where we are involved in some sort of litigation,” Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said.

Coral Gables began regulating polystyrene among private businesses in 2017 and was subsequently sued by Florida Retail Federation and SuperProgresso. A lower court later ruled the state pre-emptions for polystyrene and plastic bags were unconstitutional. The decision was appealed and is awaiting the decision of a higher court, said city officials, who are closely monitoring the case.

There are several proposed bills that could either help or hurt local governments that have enacted plastic bans or are considering them. House Bill 603 proposes prohibiting cities and counties from banning food service establishments from using single-use plastic straws.

Senate Bill 88, however, aims to repeal current state laws that pre-empt local government regulation of plastic bags and containers and local government regulation of the use and sale of polystyrene products. Senate Bill 502 would prohibit stores and food service businesses from providing plastic carryout bags to customers. The bill provides exceptions for specified items. It also prohibits a food service business from selling or providing single-use plastic straws to customers. The business may provide a straw upon request to a person who requires a straw because of a disability or medical condition, city officials said of the proposed legislation.

Several members of the public last week, including Rethinking Plastic Sarasota co-founder Jana Hoefling, supported a city ban on plastics. Hoefling’s group aims to educate the public about the dangers of plastic and discourages the use of the “Bad 5": plastic bags, plastic utensils, plastic bottles, to-go cups and to-go containers.

“Plastic was a great idea — an experiment gone wrong — and now that we know better, we have to do better,” Hoefling said. “We know the effects and we have to act on it.”

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie wants to ensure any potential plastics ban wouldn’t monetarily harm businesses or consumers, she said.

“It’s a great idea to move forward, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of making food more expensive for folks that drives out small business, that doesn’t necessarily look at incentives to business owners that want to go that way if it may need some help,” Freeland Eddie said.

Pinning down the economic impact on local businesses is tricky and depends on the type of plastic and how heavily an establishment depends on it, Freeman-Montes said.

For example, according to Freeman-Montes, if a business purchases 1,000 polystyrene takeout containers per year at 10 cents each and replaced them with a biodegradable alternative, such as sugarcane, they would pay 16 cents each. That creates a 62.5 percent increase in cost. But if that same business currently purchases 1,000 plastic eight-inch square to-go containers at 21 cents each, replacing them with the biodegradable alternative translates to a 24 percent cost savings, Freeman-Montes said.