In St. Pete, a plastic shopping bag ban clears its first hurdle

Members of a City Council committee backed the drafting of an ordinance 3—1.

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click to enlarge Yuck. - Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain
Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain

So many people showed up in support of St. Pete City Councilman Karl Nurse's proposed ban on plastic shopping bags that there were two overflow rooms as the council's Energy, Natural Resources and Sustainability Committee weighed the matter.

Yet unlike big issues that typically pack City Hall, sometimes past midnight, this discussion was over within about an hour.

As we wrote about earlier this week, St. Pete has a window for passing a ban on plastic shopping bags, albeit with some exceptions and a generous grace period for businesses to comply, given a judge's recent decision that rendered a state law banning plastic bag bans unconstitutional. The case is on appeal and the decision may ultimately be reversed — or the state legislature, apparently hungry to please entities like the Florida Retail Federation, might out-maneuver cities and courts next spring during the 2018 legislative session.

The starting point for the drafting of the St. Pete ordinance is the Coral Gables ordinance banning plastic bags. That city passed bans on plastic bags and styrofoam, which attracted the lawsuit that led to the demise of laws preempting such bans.

If it passes the council, St. Pete would be the second city in the state, behind Coral Gables, of course, to pass such a ban.

The four council members on the committee that gave the initial thumbs-up to St. Pete's ban are Ed Montanari, Nurse, Darden Rice and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. Montanari, inarguably the most conservative member of the entire eight-member council (and its only Republican) voted no — ostensibly out of concern that the 3rd District Court of Appeals may overturn the lower court's ruling.

The ban would be a bold move, proponents say, but if we don't change our behavior toward plastics because of their profound impact on the environment, wildlife, aesthetics, boat engines, etc. now, when will we?

“When plastic bags were introduced mostly out of convenience, it seems, like with many things, as the genie exits the bottle that we don't think about [its impact],” Rice said. “At the clip we're going we certainly don't want to get to the point where we have more plastic in the ocean than we have fish.”

And dolphins. And sea turtles. And seabirds. And whales. And seals. Etc.

Thursday's vote — in which the most conservative council member was the only dissenter — gives environmental activists hope that at least two of the other four council members not on the committee that voted to move forward on a ban Thursday will err on the side of sustainability.

“It was almost a unanimous decision," said Thomas Patarek, an activist with the Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics coalition, one of the major backers of the ban. "It's a very progressive move in a very conservative state. But I think we're a progressive city and I think that if we want to truly be Florida's first Green City, we have to act like this and I think this is a perfect step.”

City staff will now race the clock to draft an ordinance. It would likely exempt combustible bags, bags without handles, bags to protect food or other merchandise, prescriptions, dry-cleaning bags, garbage bags, pet waste bags and bags that the customer already used. There would likely be a year for retailers to adjust to the new rules. Nurse said that as ubiquitous as the bags are now at retailers like Publix and Target, if companies like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and IKEA can phase the things out, any company can.

If a retailer adopts paper as its default bag offering (and encourages customers to bring their own), they part with fewer bags anyhow.

“As a former bag boy at Publix, one of the things that is relevant is that when you switch from plastic bags back to paper, you use a third less,” Nurse said. “It's not a one-to-one [ratio].”

Now, the city is seeking input on how to make this change in a way that will have the smallest possible amount of negative impact on consumers and businesses.

Activists, hoping to accumulate ammunition for the pending ordinance's first reading, are asking locals to tally the littered plastic bags they see throughout the day, and to contact the Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition via social media with their findings.

”As a coastal city, plastic bags in the water are really very disconcerting,” Rice said. “I think St. Petersburg's always been a leader in environmental initiatives.”

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