Grocery stores in the South Carolina town of Mount Pleasant will have to ditch plastic bags next week in favor of paper or reuseable canvas ones. Publix is one of several supermarkets in the Charleston suburb anticipating the change.

“Our goal is to meet today’s needs without compromising what is essential for tomorrow. Simply stated, this means taking care of people and minimizing impact to our planet while remaining profitable," a Publix spokeswoman told the local Post and Courier when asked about the company’s compliance with the ordinance. “Sustainability is ingrained in our culture.”

Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani laughed — loudly — when she heard that statement.

“Why can’t they have that same attitude in Florida?” the Orlando Democrat said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando [Twitter]
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando [Twitter]

In Florida, Publix is a driving force against similar local bans. A decade ago, as mounting research showed billions of tons of plastic polluted the oceans and threatened wildlife, coastal-conscious cities across the state considered cracking down on shopping bags. But Publix, along with the closely aligned Florida Retail Federation and others, convinced lawmakers to ban any bans, and there’s been a moratorium on local bag rules ever since.

Eskamani co-sponsored a bill this session to lift the prohibition and allow local officials to decide whether they wanted the single-use plastic carriers in their communities. It’s one of the four dozen bills Publix registered to lobby on this session. Neither Eskamani’s bill nor a similar Senate measure went anywhere in Tallahassee.

The company insists there’s no space between its statement in South Carolina and its position in Florida. Publix spokesman Brian West noted that the company offers recycling of bags at all retail locations and last year recycled 260,000 tons of cardboard and 11,000 tons of plastic.

“As a company, Publix is proud of our commitment to environmentally sustainable practices,” West said.

Publix has maintained that such ordinances prohibit consumer choice and it would be difficult for a company with its footprint to navigate varying rules in all the cities and counties it operates. The Lakeland-based company has nearly 800 stores in Florida.

Eskamani said there’s a simple solution: get rid of plastic bags across the entire company instead of lobbying against the will of democratically elected local governments.

“It’s one of the reasons I’ve always expressed frustration at Publix," Eskamani said. "I loved their free cookies as a child. As an adult I’ve reflected on their policy decisions. If Floridians knew Publix was the facilitator behind these efforts, Floridians wouldn’t be happy.”

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West noted the company removed plastic bags in Coral Gables, which marched ahead with a local ban despite the state moratorium. The South Florida city’s began enforcing a bag ban in 2018 after a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled in favor of Coral Gables and declared the state moratorium was unconstitutional.

That lawsuit was brought by the parent company for 7-11 and the Florida Retail Federation. More than half of the federation’s political war chest comes from Publix, according to state campaign finance reports. The Miami-Dade judge’s decision was appealed to Third District Court of Appeals, where oral arguments took place 15 months ago and everyone is now waiting.

On March 20, the retail federation, along with the state of Florida, filed a motion essentially asking the court to hurry up already. Coral Gables City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos anticipates the outcome will eventually end up before the state Supreme Court.

Communities across the state are closely monitoring the case’s outcome. St. Petersburg is one of them. The city council has contemplated a bag ban here but is waiting for the court decision or a legislative change before proceeding. In 2010, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommended reducing single-use bags — “improperly discarded plastic bags can affect wildlife, marine life, landfill operation and flood control systems,” the agency said — but the Legislature has sat on its finding since.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Mayor Rick Kriseman is not optimistic Tallahassee will take action, noting that lawmakers considered nullifying local bans of plastic straws, like the one in St. Petersburg. Again, that action comes at the urging of the Florida Retail Federation.

Told about Publix’s comments in South Carolina, Kriseman suggested the company’s smaller footprint there gives it less influence with policymakers. That’s not the case in Tallahassee, where the company’s political sway is considerable.

“It would shock me to hear Publix make that kind of statement here because it flies in the face of what the Florida Retail Federation has been saying,” Kriseman said.

Florida Retail Federation spokesman James Miller said this should be a statewide conversation, not a local one and, “some of the focus should be on changing consumers’ mindset instead of the material.”

“Banning an item simply leads to other alternatives that can also be littered,” Miller said. “Substituting one type of litter for another is not smart strategy.”