St. Petersburg considers ban on plastic bags, but it won't be easy

St. Petersburg is considering a ban on single-use plastic bags.
St. Petersburg is considering a ban on single-use plastic bags.
Published July 28, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The next city in Florida to ban single-use plastic bags could be St. Petersburg.

A City Council committee voted 3-1 on Thursday to start drafting a citywide ban on those bags because they're a menace to the environment: They never break down, most are never recycled and they pose a danger to marine life, especially along a coastal city like St. Petersburg. In May, Coral Gables was the first Florida city to adopt such a ban.

"A wasteful plastic bag that you use for a minute shouldn't be something that pollutes our environment for decades," City Council Chairwoman Darden Rice said.

But the council's decision could also set the city on a collision course with the state over pre-emption. The Legislature made Florida the first state in the nation to block local governments from banning plastic bags in 2008.

Mayor Rick Kriseman was a legislator back then and said he tried to fight pre-emption. The 2008 measure prevented municipalities from passing their own plastic bag bans and instead left it up to state lawmakers to act on recommendations from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Those recommendations came in 2010, but state lawmakers never took action. Kriseman called legislators' inaction "disingenuous" and said he was "extremely frustrated" by it.

"The Legislature did what it always does," the mayor said, "which is to ignore the (DEP experts) and continue to pre-empt local government."

Assistant City Attorney Joe Patner told the committee he anticipates that, if the ban became law, the Florida Retail Federation will challenge it under pre-emption. But he also saw a chance for the city to prevail because of a recent court victory by the city of Coral Gables.

"I believe there is a window of opportunity here," he said. "I don't know how big the window is. I don't know how long it stays open."

Coral Gables' ban on plastic foam products survived a court challenge when a judge ruled in February the state law preventing the ban was unconstitutional. That ruling is being appealed.

Kriseman also saw Coral Gables' win as a way for St. Petersburg to enact its own ban on single-use plastic bags.

"I appreciate what Coral Gables has done in opening the door on this issue," he said.

The Coral Gables ordinance fines retailers who use single-use plastic bags between $50 and $500. The measure was aimed at promoting the use of reusable or paper bags and carves out exceptions for plastic bags used for dry cleaning, medications, newspapers and pet waste.

City Council member Ed Montanari was the lone vote against moving the measure forward. He said he would prefer to see the Coral Gables appeal run its course first. Montanari said he also fears that city legal resources and money could be drained in litigation that could all be "for nothing."

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He would prefer a more incentive-based approach to reduce the use of plastic bags rather than a total ban. "I like more carrots and less sticks," he said.

The Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition, which supports the ban, showed up before the meeting to answer the public's questions. There was no public comment at the meeting, but roughly 60 activists stayed.

St. Petersburg resident Davey Connor, who chairs the coalition, said he was satisfied with Thursday's progress but pressed supporters to keep working to make the ban a reality.

Connor, 33, said about 40 Florida cities have passed resolutions asking the state to grant them the right to regulate plastic bags in their jurisdictions.

"The desire is there," he said. "It seems like the reason it's not kicking in is because people have a fear of litigation."

Connor said the environmental benefit of banning the bags is worth the time and expense of challenging the state. The small convenience of plastic bags, he said, is not worth the drastic environmental consequences.

"So many people move to and stay in Florida because we love the environment," he said. "This is a very commonsense way to protect what we love."

Rice said she wants more outreach done before the city starts drafting the ordinance, such as talking to marine mammal rescue groups, boating and sailing organizations. "It's not something you just flip the switch and declare victory," she said. "For this to work, we really need to communicate with all stakeholders."

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.