1. Pinellas

Paper or plastic? Either will cost you under St. Petersburg proposal

Paper bags would be in the same category as plastic bags under a proposal St. Petersburg is considering. [Times files]
Paper bags would be in the same category as plastic bags under a proposal St. Petersburg is considering. [Times files]
Published Nov. 15, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Plastic straws were first. Then polystyrene. Now the City Council is targeting bags.

Council members on Thursday heard a pioneering proposal that would force retailers and restaurants citywide to charge customers 5 cents for "single-use carryout bags." That means traditional Chinese-restaurant style plastic bags, and those boxy paper grocery bags. Think Publix paper and plastic.

City officials believe it would be the first of its kind in Florida.

"We're kind of an accidental pioneer on this," said Council member Gina Driscoll. "I'm hoping this ... ordinance will help us be known as a leader in single use plastics."

According to the language in the proposed ordinance, the bag plan would work like this: retailers would charge 5 cents at checkout for every single-use bag given to the customer, no matter the bag material. One cent would go to the retailer, while the city would collect 4 cents for a water cleanup fund.

Businesses could earn a second cent per bag if they implement a rewards program to give customers 5 cents for each bag of their own they bring.

"That provides a carrot to the retailer who provides a carrot to the customer to bring in a reusable bag," said Managing Assistant City Attorney Michael Dema, who authored the draft ordinance and presented it to the Health, Energy, Resiliency and Sustainability Committee on Thursday.

Council member Ed Montanari said the fee could be a burden for some families. On average, city officials estimate the fees could cost families $7-$10 a year. The ordinance would exempt customers on food assistance programs from paying the bag fee.

"It may not seem like a lot of money for a lot of people," Montanari said, "but for people on the lower end of the economic scale, it does seem like a lot of money."

City officials estimated the reduction in bags could save money in litter cleanup. A report to the committee pointed to San Diego, which it says spends about $160,000 a year picking up plastic bags.

But why charge for paper bags? Aren't they supposed to be the more environmentally-friendly option?

According to data compiled by city staff paper bags leave their own environmental footprint: First, there's the issue of deforestation. Then the pulping process demands water, chemicals and energy, the latter means manufacturers burn fossil fuel or wood, adding pollutants and heat to the atmosphere. Like plastic bags, they get used only a few times and can be hard to compost, even in a landfill, where exposure to air and moisture can be low. And they take up more space than the equivalent number of plastic bags.

Other cities and states have taken similar measures. California in 2014 passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii has a de facto statewide ban on plastic bags and paper bags made from less than 40 percent recyclable material, as its counties have ordinances barring their distribution. And Washington, D.C. has implemented a system by which retailers charge for bags, no matter the type. The St. Petersburg proposal is modeled after Washington's approach.

Some retailers, too, have stopped giving out bags or charge for them. Lucky's Market and Trader Joe's don't offer plastic bags. Aldi supermarkets and Save-a-Lot charge for bags.

"That's a store that's geared toward families on a budget," Driscoll said about Save-A-Lot. A local store manager told city officials the new bag fee proposal wouldn't affect her customers, who are already accustomed to paying for bags.

The St. Petersburg ordinance wouldn't include other types of bags, like those from the shopping mall, or newspaper bags, dry cleaner bags, those for prescription medication, pet and yard waste bags and compostable bags.

The ordinance could put St. Petersburg at odds with state law, which pre-empts plastic bag regulation. A 2008 statute directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to make recommendations on ways to regulate containers, wrappings and plastic bags. In the meantime local municipalities were prohibited from enacting their own regulations on those products until the legislature adopted the recommendations. But that was eight years ago, and state lawmakers have not moved.

Coral Gables last year approved the state's first bag ban, following a favorable court ruling in a case against the city's polystyrene ban. But St. Petersburg could be the first Florida city to charge for bags.

"We're aware of the potential" for litigation, Dema said. "It's less aggressive than an outright ban."

The bag-charging initiative was intended to be the third leg of a sustainability package the committee hoped to move to the full council for a vote that included bans on plastic straws and polystyrene, known colloquially by the brand name Styrofoam. But with the straw and polystyrene bans ready and waiting, committee members decided to send those to council while they continue to workshop the bag plan.

While the straw and bag rules would apply to all businesses, the polystyrene ban would apply only to businesses contracted by the city or those doing business on city property or in a public right of way. That would include food trucks operating in the street and any business with a permit to operate on the sidewalk.

That caveat is a way to work around the the state pre-emption, which does allow polystyrene restrictions on city property. The ruling in the Coral Gables case was appealed and remains in court.

If passed, the ordinances would go into effect after one year, giving businesses a chance to deplete their inventories. Until that point, straws would be by request only.

City staff estimatedabout 1,898 businesses would be affected by some or all of the regulation package.

The polystyrene and straws ordinance would be enforceable by a written warning on the first infraction, a $40 penalty on the second and an $80 fee on all subsequent infractions. City officials were still working out how they'll enforce the bag ordinance. Committee members directed staff to fine tune the proposal and return Jan. 10 with an update.

"It's the newest leg in this three legged chair and it's still a work in progress," Dema said.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @ByJoshSolomon.