Ellen McKnight / Alamy

Miami’s plastic vice: Bagging the ban on bag bans

South Florida businesses and environmentalists fight political battle over state rule outlawing plastic bag prohibition

MIAMI BEACH, Florida — Miami Beach markets itself as having 9 miles of glittering, hot, white sandy beaches in a southern Florida tourist haven that delights locals and visitors alike. But sometimes the reality can be a little different.

On some weekends, it can be hard to escape stepping on mounds of discarded plastic bags, bottles, cigarette butts and food wrappers. “I can’t go to the beach anymore because I end up cleaning up,” said Dave Doebler, a member of Miami Beach’s Sustainability Committee, which is tasked with providing long- and short-term goals for the city’s strategic plan regarding environmental and economic concerns.

“Last week, we pulled 800 pounds of trash off the shoreline during one of our beach cleanups. It’s not just Miami Beach either. It’s all over, in Biscayne Bay, and all up and down the coast,” Doebler added.

The worst trash strewn along the shoreline: plastic bags. Not only are they unsightly, but their impact is hard to miss, especially along waterways, where they harm land and marine wildlife, clog flood control systems, interfere with landfill operations and breed mosquitoes. The United Nations recently released two reports with conservative financial estimates for worldwide marine damage from plastics: $13 billion each year.

The harsh environmental impact of plastic bags has spurred a movement to eliminate them. From Hawaii to cities such as Los Angeles, San FranciscoSeattle, Washington, D.C., and most recently Chicago, over 160 state and local governments have passed plastic bag bans. There is often a small fee, up to 10 cents in some areas, to encourage reusable bags.

The elected officials of Miami Beach say they would like to have a plastic bag ban of their own. But they can’t, because it’s illegal in Florida to ban plastic bags. 

Last week, we pulled 800 pounds of trash off the shoreline during one of our beach cleanups. It’s not just Miami Beach either. It’s all over, in Biscayne Bay, and all up and down the coast.

Dave Doebler

Miami Beach’s Sustainability Committee

In 2008, the Florida Legislature passed a law that denied local governments the opportunity to enact plastic bag laws. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) subsequently created a list of recommendations based on a 2010 Retail Bags Report, ensuring that the Legislature could enact no new bag rules unless it followed the DEP guidelines. The DEP regulatory strategy discouraged single-use plastic and paper bags, and noted that outright bans produced the fastest results — closely followed by plans that impose user fees or taxes.

But getting Florida’s politicians to agree on a law allowing the banning of plastic bags has not been easy, not least because of opposition from some members of the business community. So Florida’s ban on the bans remains in place.

Some local leaders are trying to change that. This past legislative session, there was a bill that would have removed the prohibition on municipalities regulating plastic bags and requiring that new ordinances be uniform throughout the state. It was the second attempt by state Sen. Dwight Bullard — a Democrat representing a district mostly surrounded by water — to introduce a bill with a 10-cent fee for paper bags to offset costs for stores mandated to make the switch from plastic.

But at the Senate committee hearing, Samantha Padgett of the Florida Retail Federation called the bill an unnecessary paper bag tax.

“We have a public information campaign that tells people where they can take plastic bags to recycle. Plastic bags also have a place in the green building market,” she said. Padgett cited their use in making decking materials, park benches and landscape dividers. Among other things, a ban would mean 100 fewer jobs at Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer with plants in Jacksonville and Orlando.

The bill was temporarily postponed in committee, primarily because lawmakers “started throwing around the ugly T word in government," said Bullard, referring to "tax." The state senator is undecided on whether he will eventually remove the fee from the bill.

“I don’t think the naysayers would be satisfied either way. There is no brouhaha or riot in the streets going to happen because people are asked to pay an additional 10 cents for a processing fee," said Bullard. "There is a level of ignorance in Tallahassee towards the national trend. This is not an overly cumbersome thing. Certain retailers are actually asking for this.” 

There is no brouhaha or riot in the streets going to happen because people are asked to pay an additional 10 cents for a processing fee.

Dwight Bullard

Florida state senator

For years, the finger-pointing about the cause of the litter problem in Miami Beach focused on the tourists. Grassroots organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation and Ecomb, which have been trying to get the city to improve the condition of coastal waterways, now feel they have elected officials who are listening.

But, despite being unable to ban plastic bags outright, Miami Beach authorities are taking baby steps to enforce environmental regulations. This summer, the county will install recycling bins on the beaches for the first time, and starting in November, the city will enforce mandatory recycling programs for businesses and for condominiums larger than eight units. Currently, plastic straws and disposable coolers made of polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, are prohibited on the beaches — but that has barely decreased the amount of trash.

“We’ve been really lax in protecting our beaches and waterways. We’ve been behind the eight ball when it comes to recycling," said Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco. "Now we’re making a decision to address this issue."

But, unable to take on the plastic bag issue, the closest the city can get to remove nonbiodegradable, petroleum-based litter is to focus on polystyrene. In mid-June, Grieco introduced a resolution to ban city contractors from using polystyrene products. Eventually, there are hopes to expand the ban citywide.

“McDonald’s and Starbucks don’t use it. Dunkin' Donuts is phasing it out. It’s time we grow up and get with the program," said Grieco. "Since statutes clearly pre-empt municipalities from banning plastic bags, we met with our city attorney to think how we can ban polystyrene. Let the retail association sue us if they have a problem with it."

Dozens of cities have already banned polystyrene containers, such as clamshell-shaped take out food boxes, packing peanuts and foam coffee cups. Although the material maintains heat and is cost-effective for the food industry, it contains styrene and benzene, suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. It easily breaks apart into small pieces that are extremely difficult to clean up and remain in the environment for at least 500 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“In terms of quantity, it’s not as much as plastic bags. But in terms of toxicity, absolutely. We’re focusing on the low-hanging fruit,” said Scott Stripling, chairman of the Miami chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. "In this case, we’re going to focus on polystyrene."

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