Scourge of the sea: Florida activists raise awareness of a major threat to our aquatic ecosystems

click to enlarge This widely-circulated image shows the shocking consequences of plastic pollution. - Flickr user Stefan Leijon
Flickr user Stefan Leijon
This widely-circulated image shows the shocking consequences of plastic pollution.

Go to St. Pete Beach on a weekend in high season at around sunset. Chances are, at some point along the expanse of sand and water, you’ll find thick patches of garbage, left behind by beachgoers out of carelessness or because nearby trashcans were already overflowing. Most of the refuse — straws, six-pack rings, bottles — is made from plastic or some other synthetic materials that will take thousands of years to break down fully, if they do at all.

When the wind blows and the tide rises, these materials make their way out to sea, where they wreak havoc on wildlife, either as choking hazards or as pollutants that attack on the cellular level.

Plastic, of course, is incredibly hard for consumers to avoid. It’s in nearly every product we buy, often as packaging we throw away after one use.

And even if one dutifully discards single-use plastics in the right recyclables receptacle, there’s still a chance it can get swept out to sea. 

In Florida and especially in Pinellas County — both of which are land masses surrounded on three sides by water — environmental activists are engaged in an impassioned effort to curb the amount of plastic refuse that Florida contributes to the world’s oceans.

On Thursday, April 20 — two days before St. Pete Earth Day — several groups are coming together to screen the film A Plastic Ocean at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The 2016 documentary chronicles the four-year journey of two ocean conservationists who traveled the world to uncover the depth of our global plastic problem. What they uncover is often ugly: sea creatures so mired in the stuff that their bellies are full of it, underwater ecosystems covered with it and remote islands where it’s constantly piling up on the shore to the dismay of locals.

Director Craig Leeson has said he hopes the film will inspire more people to rethink their relationship with plastics.

Here in Florida, conscientious residents of coastal areas are trying to change the way consumers think. In 2015, residents of Treasure Island urged city officials to pass a ban on plastic straws at beachfront restaurants and bars. The grassroots campaign grew after a local mother posted a photo of the discarded straws she and her son had found on the beach one afternoon — straws that could have easily washed out into the gulf only to be mistaken for food by a sea turtle. The photo went viral. Some business owners and the local chamber of commerce fought the proposed ban because of the financial burden it posed, and successfully lobbied to make it a voluntary ban — which appears to have held up, with several businesses having converted to use of paper straws only.

On the other coast, officials in Coral Gables opted to ban use of most plastic bags.

The thing is, it’s technically illegal for cities and counties to ban plastic bags and polystyrene in the state of Florida, largely due to the stronghold monied interests like Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation have on many lawmakers in Tallahassee. But a court recently sided with the city of Coral Gables on its right to impose bans on such items (which will likely be appealed).

There’s another looming threat in Tallahassee that could preempt cities from imposing any bans at all: House Bill 17, which would ban cities and counties from passing any regulations on businesses, including bans on environmental hazards like plastics or fertilizers.

Florida lawmakers have for years been tenacious in their efforts to block cities’ efforts to protect the environment, and HB 17 would be the mother of all preemptions.

Fortunately for thoughtful Floridians, organizations like the Sierra Club and Chart 411 are engaged in public awareness efforts aimed at consumers. When it took the reins of St. Pete’s Earth Day Festival last year, Chart 411 banned single-use plastic water bottles from the event and instead offered attendees refillable bottles, which it will do again this year. (The second annual Earth Day Festival takes place in St. Pete’s Williams Park this weekend.)

And the Suncoast Surfrider Foundation, as part of its Rise Above Plastics Coalition campaign, partnered with the St. Pete Indie Market to ban vendors from giving out plastic bags.

So if powerful industries are using state legislatures to tie the hands of cities and counties, it’s up to individuals to spread awareness of the harm plastics pose.

A Plastic Ocean: Thurs. Apr. 20, St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 2nd Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. Cocktails & appetizers, 5:30 p.m.; film, 6:30 p.m. $5 suggested donation. Presented by Chart 411, St. Pete Earth Day, Suncoast Sierra Club, Keep Pinellas Beautiful and Suncoast Surfrider Foundation.

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