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State law prohibits the prohibition of plastic bags, Styrofoam

Straws are out on Fort Myers Beach, but bags are staying — for now

November 15, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Fort Myers Beach has made one victory in the battle against microplastic pollution, but a next step might have to get a little more creative.

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council was hoping to tackle other plastics following its plastic straw ban, but Florida state laws are stopping the environmental progress.

After banning plastic straws, the council set its sights on plastic bags - as did many who commented on social media or in the public. But, Rae Burns, environmental technician, said there won't be a plastic bag ban.

She discussed next steps with the Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF) Wednesday.

A Florida law passed in 2008 said the Department of Environmental Protection was going to research the need for regulation of take-out containers and plastic bags for the "ongoing welfare of Florida's ecology and economy" but that until the research was complete, local governments were prohibited from banning the use, sale or distribution of plastic bags, Styrofoam or auxiliary (to-go cups, etc) containers.

Coral Gables passed a ban on Styrofoam containers, claiming a section of its charter pre-dated the Florida law, but it's now being sued by the Florida Retail Federation, Inc., and the State of Florida.

If Fort Myers Beach attempted a ban, it could be sued by the state of Florida and Florida retailers.

Florida Senator Jose Havier Rodriguez of Miami-Dade nominated a bill last year to overturn this state law, however it died in committee. He introduced another in September that would allow coastal municipalities to establish pilot programs to regulate or ban plastic bags if they collected data and submitted reports to the Department of Environmental Protection. The bill, SB 348, was sent to committee in October.

"Getting legislation as a committee is premature until this bill passes," Bill Veach, MRTF chair, said.

Plastic straws happened to be a loophole item the council could squeeze through, but Burns said there weren't many other specific objects like that which the town could prohibit.

"It's hard to find those outliers," she said.

But, there could be ways around an outright ban.

"Short of a ban, can we makes a statement or encourage businesses to not use plastic bags?" asked new MRTF member, Louise Kowitch.

The town could pass a resolution stating its disapproval on the use of plastic bags. Unlike ordinances, resolutions do not hold punitive measures and are not an enforceable code; rather, a resolution makes a statement about how the town views something.

As the MRTF board began to brainstorm, another solution surfaced: a voluntary compliance program.

MRTF is considering developing a program that would reward businesses for making changes that are environmentally friendly. The board members tossed around different ideas, such as giving out reusable cloth bags for residents or visitors to use in grocery stores or certifying those businesses who meet a criteria as "green certified" by the town. Such a certification could be used in those businesses' marketing and advertising.

MRTF Member Keri Hendry Weeg said she always checks when traveling to find hotels and businesses that profess their commitment to the environment, and the businesses' "green" measures can be a deciding factor for environmentally-conscious tourists.

"To wean off the bag culture, you gave to have an in between stage," Burns said.

Such a program will have to be approved by council before it would be adopted. But MRTF doesn't want to let the momentum from the straw ban fade. Burns is going to research any other items that might be allowed for a ban, including cigarette butts, and the board is planning to reinstate its volunteer beach cleanup group.

"It's a baby step, but the plastic straw ban got a lot of attention in a state prescribed to plastics," Kowitch said.



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