Tampa targets foam in first effort to reduce single-use plastics

City Council members on Thursday voted unanimously to support a prohibition on selling foamed polystyrene on public property.
A Watergoat contains the movement of single-use plastics, glass and polystyrene containers from a drainage canal next to the Selmon Expressway at the top of McKay Bay in 2018.
A Watergoat contains the movement of single-use plastics, glass and polystyrene containers from a drainage canal next to the Selmon Expressway at the top of McKay Bay in 2018. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 3, 2020|Updated Sept. 4, 2020

TAMPA — The city moved toward limiting some single-use plastics that pollute the environment on Thursday, with council members unanimously supporting a ban on distributing foam cups, plates and other items on public property.

“We know that single-use plastics degrade our environment, (and) are often only used for several minutes,” said Whit Remer, Tampa’s sustainability and resilience officer. Officials under Mayor Jane Castor will soon implement a policy that blocks people from selling or handing out the material, foamed polystyrene, on city land and at events or businesses operating under city permits and leases.

The policy will not touch all private businesses, and it will likely include an exception for small events, for instance a child’s birthday party in a park. It is meant to police products and companies with a bigger footprint, like a public golf course providing foam cups at the clubhouse and on every tee box.

Related: Tampa considers single-use plastic ban

“By moving away from Styrofoam, we can create a more sustainable and resilient city,” Castor said in a statement.

The measure is less expansive than rules across the bay in St. Petersburg, which largely prohibits plastic straws in private eateries. Council members want the city to work on public education programs to dissuade residents from relying on single-use plastics, but Remer told them he does not think the timing is right to act on straws.

“We thought that it was insensitive given the global pandemic,” he said, explaining how restaurants are already struggling at reduced capacity and with “very, very thin margins.” The city further worries about running afoul of preemption laws from Tallahassee in going beyond foam, Remer said, and of limiting options for people with disabilities who rely on straws.

Related: St. Petersburg tweaks straw ordinance ahead of 2020 ban

Foamed polystyrene makes up coffee cups and takeout containers and is just one example of the broader suite of single-use plastics interwoven in American life. Such materials can be harmful to ecosystems and do not degrade but break down into small pieces, called microplastics, which run off into waterways, touching drinking supplies and settling into the bellies of animals. Polystyrene, research shows, may linger for hundreds of years. Scientists continue to research how microplastics accumulate in the environment and in what ways they might make humans sick.

“I think Styrofoam is gross. ... Styrofoam in the environment outlives us,” said Tampa council member Guido Maniscalco, praising city staff for acting after months of deliberation.

Officials in Tampa studied similar policies from places like Orlando while crafting their approach. Single-use plastic bans are a battlefront in partisan culture wars, with Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee writing bills to block local governments from restricting their use. Plastic bags, for instance, are technically recyclable, albeit in a rarely used process, Remer said, and state law limits Tampa’s ability to regulate the material. Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, however, vetoed a bill that would have stopped local governments from banning plastic straws.

“They are limited because of some state laws,” said Jenna Stevens, state director of Environment Florida. “This is a great step in the right direction when it comes to local communities protecting their waters.”