ST. PETERSBURG — Business owners and elected officials on Tuesday unveiled a new campaign attacking an environmental scourge:
The plastic straw.
The "No Straws St. Pete" campaign hopes to convince businesses and residents to curb their usage of straws. It is led by City Council member Gina Driscoll, the website ilovetheburg.com, Bank of the Ozarks and several environmental groups.
The campaign asks restaurants and residents alike to voluntarily curb their use of plastic straws and utensils. The goal is to get consumers to say "no straw" when ordering drinks. So far about 20 businesses have joined.
That includes the local chain of Kahwa Coffee shops. Owners Sarah and Raphael Perrier said they've been researching alternatives to plastic straws, including paper and metal straws. They're also trying to change the culture of using plastic straws in their cafes.
"If I give you a drink and you don't get a straw, maybe you'll get used to not having a straw," Raphael Perrier said. "It's not as bad as people would think. It's just a matter of breaking the habit, getting used to a different way to do things."
St. Petersburg is the latest city to join the effort to fight single-use straws, now a top-10 polluter of the world's beaches. The United States used an average of 500 million straws a day, according to the National Park Service, and then throws them out, leaving them to pollute the seas and sea life.
"Anytime you walk around, especially in downtown, you see on the curbs straws that have been discarded," Driscoll said. "You find them in beach cleanups by the dozens.
"I expect that within a short time after we do a restriction or if enough businesses get involved in our city, I think that our local cleanup groups will see a big reduction in the number of straws they find."
Mayor Rick Kriseman said "No Straws St. Pete" will also start a much needed conversation about what the city should do about this plastic menace. There's even been talk of banning plastic straws altogether, something Fort Myers Beach did in February.
"Whatever form an ordinance ultimately takes, I applaud this effort and this campaign," Kriseman said at Tuesday's news conference. "Our natural environment, and that includes our world-famous waterfront, must be protected."
Americans use about 1.5 straws per person every 24 hours, according to the National Parks Service. And most of those indestructible straws live on forever in landfills, beaches and waterways where they can harm marine life.
Fort Myers passed a straw ban last November and a California state congressman introduced a bill in January that would make plastic straws a strictly on-demand request at dine-in restaurants.
Driscoll said she's been looking to such cities for examples of what kind of legislation St. Petersburg City Council could pass and is "hoping to have something in place this year." She said she wants to avoid "unintended consequences" and give local businesses plenty of time to get ready for a ban.
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But at the same time: "I want to make sure that by the time we make a vote that we're already in that mind set that this is the right thing to do."
A voluntary program is a good first step, said Rise Above Plastics Coalition chair Davey Connor, but it also pushes the responsibility onto consumers. That's why the city needs to do more.
"A straw is not an essential part of your daily life," he said. "You use it for a couple of minutes and it's in the ocean, it's on the beach for 100 years.
"And I love the beach, I love the ocean, I love sea turtles, I love all these other animals that are affected by something like this, and I would really like it if the city put forth a little more strong language to try to protect the marine environment."