Walking along the water is one of the most rewarding parts of living in Tampa Bay. Except for the plastic trash, which seems ever-present. There may be as much as 51 trillion pieces of plastic pollution in the worlds oceans accounting for 80 percent of all marine debris. This threatens food safety, human health and coastal tourism, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature report last year. And your state government actively keeps cities from doing anything about it. That must change.
Plastic is a large part of our everyday life even when we avoid the use of plastic bags and plastic bottles. Foam packaging peanuts for shipping, food packaging, meat/poultry trays and egg cartons typically are made with polystyrene, which is a petroleum-based product that can cause public health concerns. In fact, 79 percent of all plastic waste ever produced ends up in landfills, dumps or the environment and nearly all of those plastics are derived from oil, natural gas and coal. This is particularly concerning because plastic production is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next 8 years if changes are not made.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the ever present plastic problem as every time we conduct research SCUBA dives or wade through mangrove ecosystems we are faced with entangled fishing line, bottle caps, forks, chip bags, and pieces of polystyrene rather than the marine life we hope to study.
Products from takeout containers to coffee cups persist in the environment and landfills for five lifetimes before they decompose. Even when they do break down they turn into microplastics, which are small enough to be ingested by marine animals like manatees, fish, crabs and oysters. In many ways microplastics are worse than the products they breakdown from since these nearly invisible pieces of plastic can enter the stomachs of these marine animals causing starvation and leaching harmful chemicals into their bodies.
Once inside the food web microplastics can unknowingly end up on our seafood plates. In 2019 USF research scientists revealed that in Tampa Bay alone there are four billion microplastic particles floating in the water and three trillion sitting at the bottom of the bay. Many of these particles were splintered pieces of fishing line, nets and fragments of larger single use plastics. Tampa Bay is not alone. These microplastics are even showing up in Florida’s most protected natural spaces including the Dry Tortugas, the Everglades and Biscayne National park.
You can skip the straw or carry a reusable water bottle, and that’s great. But you can’t do it alone. Cities could help, but state law won’t let them.
Florida is falling behind the rest of the nation in efforts to reduce marine pollution and safeguard marine habitats from the dangers of single-use plastics. In 2014 California was the first state to enact legislation focused on banning single-use plastic bags followed by seven other states. Florida isn’t even on the list.
As a premier vacation destination filled with beautiful natural coastlines and our strong community and financial ties to the marine environment, we should be leading the efforts to protect the oceanic habitat. Reducing single-use plastic products can even increase demand for cost-effective alternative solutions which may be a massive opportunity to support Florida job creation, local small businesses and even redefining our local relationship with our coastal communities.
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One of the biggest obstacles in limiting single-use plastics in Florida are preemptive laws that limit the authority of local communities from placing bans or regulatory restrictions on the use of single-use plastics like bottles, bags, and foam containers. This law makes it difficult for cities and counties to enact meaningful action to reduce plastic pollution and safeguard local waterways and coastlines.
Annual efforts to enact state-wide legislation or repeal these preemptive laws have been unsuccessful as these efforts often get stuck in legislative committees or do not make in onto the floor for discussion due to the influence and power of special interest groups and corporate stakeholders.
If we want to bring power back to our local communities, we must contact our state representatives in this 60-day window ending March 11. The choice in how we deal with the future of our oceans and how plastic pollution impacts our marine communities should be ours.
If you want to bring legislative control back to your local community, reach out to Rep. Bob Rommel, the chair of the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee, at (850) 717-5106 or Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the Rules Committee, at (850) 487-5028, in support of HB 6063/SB 320: Preemption of Recyclable and Polystyrene Materials. Public pressure is the only way to get these bills out of legislative committees and and on to the books to reflect the will of voters like you.
Victoria Scriven is a master’s candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida. As an oceanographer and marine biologist, she strives to educate the community on how human interactions with the ocean can lead to drastic ecosystem changes.