CLEARWATER BEACH — It began two years ago when Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant stopped using plastic foam cups and realized what a waste they had been all along.
The 70-year-old family business then started serving straws only upon request. Customers barely noticed.
Next to go were plastic bags. Now every temperature stick poked into a steak is recyclable wood, not plastic. The coasters under every beer and margarita are plant-based. Not only are all to-go boxes biodegradable, so is the restaurant’s toilet paper.
Around the world, a growing number of cities and countries are banning straws, bags and other single-use plastic products, which never degrade and are polluting the environment in alarming quantities: An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year. But Florida has not made it easy for local governments to crack down — a 2008 law prohibits cities from banning plastic bags and containers, and a 2016 law blocks bans on plastic foam.
Without legal muscle to curb waste, bay area advocates are working to change the norms of businesses and the habits of consumers to drastically cut the amount of single-use products generated in the first place.
The Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition is a group of 20 local organizations that banded together three years ago to help restaurants and retailers make sustainable changes. Sixteen Tampa Bay businesses, including the Beachcomber, have received national Ocean Friendly certification through the coalition by voluntarily banning foam products and plastic bags, only providing straws and to-go utensils upon request, and enforcing recycling programs.
“This is cultural. It’s about changing the way we live,” said coalition chair Davey Connor. “I think a lot of folks don’t realize how much is at stake and how severe their impact is. There’s not an industry trying to teach them. There is instead an industry trying to get them to think they need to buy a 24-case of water bottles every time they go to the grocery store.”
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On a recent Saturday, a volunteer crew stood on the bank of McKay Bay in Ybor City, gloves and garbage bags in hand, and scanned Tampa Bay’s contribution to the global plastic pollution crisis.
Too many plastic bottles bobbing in the water to count. A swirl of aluminum cans, to-go bags and foam cups floating in a greasy film.
Like most garbage that ends up in Tampa Bay’s waterways, this trash was not thrown into this narrow section of McKay Bay directly. Plastic cups discarded on sidewalks or bottles tossed from car windows made their way into storm drains and were then swept into the watershed.
If it weren’t for a strategically placed 90-foot Watergoat device, a thread of football-sized buoys netted together from bank to bank, the trash would have continued its journey into the mouth of Tampa Bay, some into the waters beyond.
“I would love to say it’s due to a lack of education, but I know people who are educated and still don’t do the right thing,” said Myria Evans, Hillsborough Community College-Ybor City biology instructor and adviser for Phi Theta Kappa, which cleans the Watergoat monthly. “It has to be a personal decision.”
Mark Maksimowicz, who invented the Watergoat device 11 years ago after he began cleaning garbage from local waterways, said change will only occur if the severity of the pollution crisis shakes the public to its core.
In May, the 13 Watergoats placed in watersheds throughout Tampa Bay caught an average of 142 pounds of trash each, with plastic bottles making up about 73 percent of the haul, according to Maksimowicz.
“Single-use plastics are the scourge of our society,” he said. “The answer is we have to change our behavioral patterns as humans. The question is whether it can change quickly enough.”
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Coral Gables was one of the first cities in Florida to ban plastic foam in 2015, just before a new state law went into effect prohibiting municipalities from such actions.
The Florida Retail Federation promptly filed a lawsuit, which noted its advocacy for “the free enterprise system” and alleged the ban violated state laws on the books. But a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled in favor of Coral Gables, saying the 2016 plastic foam pre-emption unfairly targeted the city while the 2008 pre-emption on plastic bags and containers was “unconstitutionally vague.”
After the favorable ruling, Coral Gables banned plastic bags in May 2017.
The federation’s challenge is now pending in the Third District Court of Appeals. City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos said the outcome could either embolden other cities to tackle single-use plastics with bans or keep them relying on voluntary measures.
“If it had not been challenged, I think we would have seen a lot of cities lining up to do this,” she said, noting some cities may interpret the 2008 state prohibition on banning “auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags” to include straws.
State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said she intends to file a bill next year to repeal the state prohibition on plastic bag bans. One filed in 2018 died in committee.
In voluntary efforts to curb plastic waste, disposable straws have become a go-to target locally and internationally. But straws make up only a fraction of plastic debris in the environment, and some advocates are thinking bigger.
In St. Petersburg, about 35 businesses in the Grand Central district have pledged to go plastic bag free for the month of October. The Rise Above Plastics Coalition is using a grant to supply the businesses with paper bags and plans to collect data on consumer reactions to share with local governments, said coalition steering committee member Kira Barrera.
The Clearwater City Council passed a symbolic resolution in May encouraging businesses to participate in waste reduction efforts. Mayor George Cretekos said it makes more sense to reward good behavior than to attempt a ban that could be challenged in court or by public opinion.
Almost 50 restaurants in Clearwater have joined the Strawless Summer Challenge, only giving out straws upon request through August in exchange for advertisement on the city’s website and social media.
“What we’d like to do first is foster community values by making it voluntary rather than banning it outright,” said Clearwater recycling specialist Sheridan Boyle, “The idea is to have a short-term commitment businesses can do rather than something that feels overwhelming. Of course, we don’t want that to end Aug. 31.”
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David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, said government bans are far from radical.
With 12 billion metric tons of plastic expected to enter landfills or the natural environment by 2050, he said that trying to temper that with legal measures is “entirely appropriate.”
About seven years ago, Hastings launched a study of microplastics in Tampa Bay. It started when he and a group of students were conducting a routine analysis of plankton and found bits of plastic in their nets.
A marine chemist, Hastings now estimates there’s an average of five pieces of microplastic per gallon of water in Tampa Bay. That’s about 9 trillion pieces of plastic smaller than an eighth of an inch contaminating all Tampa Bay.
His research team is finding these particles 5,000 feet deep at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. These tiny pieces of plastic are consumed by plankton and other marine life, which are then eaten by us.
“I think we are going to figure this out, but are we going to figure this out now or 10 years from now or 30 years from now?” Hastings said.
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Since earning its national Ocean Friendly certification in January, Beachcomber co-owner Bobby Heilman said staff is still finding plastic products to cut that never dawned on them before as waste.
He walked by the bowl of toothpicks on the host stand for years before realizing every single one didn’t really need its own plastic wrapper. The same went for those individually wrapped peppermints by the door.
He said more casual beachfront businesses may have a harder time transitioning away from plastic. But his restaurant has already hosted one open house to offer tips and advice.
“People don’t like change. Tradition is a big part of what we do here,” Heilman said. “But it’s not about the short term. It’s about the long term.”
By the numbers
8 million: metric tons of plastic is estimated to enter the oceans each year
110,000: metric tons of marine debris the United States generates annually
2 million: the amount of plastics produced worldwide in 1950 in metric tons
400 million: the amount of plastics produced worldwide in 2015 in metric tons
8.3 billion: the amount of plastics humans generated by 2015, in metric tons — 6.3 billion tons of which had become waste. Of that waste total, 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent went to landfills or the natural environment
In 2017, about 21,000 volunteers removed 173,552 pounds of trash from the state’s beaches and waterways during Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Here’s what volunteers collected:
95,679: cigarette butts
74,420: plastic bottles caps
37,683: food wrappers
31,948: plastic bottles
Across Tampa Bay, there are 13 Watergoats, netted buoys that block trash from floating further into waters. In the month of May, each caught an average of 142 pounds of garbage. Here’s the breakdown:
73%: plastic bottles
10%: Styrene containers
5%: plastic cups
4%: aluminum cans
2%: glass bottles
Sources: Plastic waste inputs from land into ocean, 2015; Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, 2017; Ocean Conservancy; Watergoat inventor Mark Maksimowicz.