The Strawless City: St. Pete bans plastic straws, Styrofoam

A sign seen on the front door of Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in March, after owner Tom Woodard stopped serving drinks with plastic straws. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
A sign seen on the front door of Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in March, after owner Tom Woodard stopped serving drinks with plastic straws. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Dec. 14, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Say goodbye to plastic straws in the 'Burg.

After months of discussions, St. Petersburg's City Council voted late Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws as well as expanded polystyrene, more commonly known by its brand name Styrofoam. The straw ban will start in 2020, while the polystyrene ban will start in just a few weeks.

For a city that relies so heavily on its waterfront, it's a big symbolic step toward sustainability. Straws are one of the biggest polluters of coastlines across the world.

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And it puts St. Petersburg in rare company. Just a few cities across the country have taken such a progressive — or perhaps draconian, depending on one's perspective — approach to regulating single-use plastic straws.

"This is such a big victory for our city," said council member Gina Driscoll, who championed the issue. "It really shows that St. Pete is ready to lead the way in environmental stewardship."

The ordinance passed after about 40 people spent roughly two hours addressing council on this issue. The 5-2 vote took place at about 10:30 p.m.

The ordinance will be rolled out in two phases: For the first year, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019, St. Petersburg will be a straw-by-request-only city, meaning restaurants and other places can only give plastic straws to customers who ask for them. After that first year, though, businesses will be prohibited from offering plastic straws at all. That's the ban.

There are no penalties for violating the request-only portion of the ordinance for the first three months, so from Jan. 1 to March 31. Then, for the remainder of the first year, the city will issue warnings.

The real enforcement starts Jan. 1, 2020, when the ban kicks in. The first violation is a warning, the second will result in a $40 fine, and all subsequent violations within a year of the first violation will result in an $80 fine.

There are exemptions built in for drive-thrus, hospitals, grocery stores and convenience stores.

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The straw rule survived a last-minute attempt to strip it of much of its teeth at Thursday's meeting, when council member Ed Montanari sought to eliminate the ban and make it a permanent by-request-only ordinance. That motion narrowly failed by a vote of 4-3.

The Styrofoam ban will work in a similar manner to the straws, except there's no by-request-only grace period. Instead, the ban kicks in right away on Jan. 1. Like straws, there will be no penalties in the first year. After that, the $40 and $80 fines will come into play.

The polystyrene portion of the ordinance could have put St. Petersburg at odds with state law. 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 still haven't made a move.

To get around that, St. Petersburg's Styrofoam ban will only apply to businesses contracted by the city or those doing business on public property or in a public right of way. That includes food trucks operating in the street and any establishment with a permit to operate on the sidewalk. State law allows cities to restrict polystyrene on city property.

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Council members on Thursday also passed a resolution supporting a bill filed in the Florida Senate that would eliminate the state's preemption rule, which prevents cities from defying the Legislature in areas such as gun regulation. This would pave the way for cities to regulate single-use items.

The idea of discouraging straw use is gaining momentum, with cities from Fort Myers Beach to Malibu, Calif. regulating them. Coral Gables, too, has taken strong steps to regulate single-use waste, a stance that was met with litigation.

Opponents say straws bans are nothing but a symbolic gesture as straws account for a minuscule amount of the world's plastics pollution by weight. Others note straws are a top-10 beach pollutor and say straws are a "gateway" plastic, something to make people conscious of their environmental footprint so that they will live more sustainably.

Encouraging straw discipline is not a brand new concept in St. Petersburg. A group of environmentally conscious business owners have been offering straws only upon request for months, since the beginning of the No Straws St. Pete campaign began in the spring.

Residents have embraced the cause. Most of those who spoke on the issue at the meeting supported it — only two spoke against it.

Speakers included people of all ages, but it was clear the issue had galvanized St. Petersburg's youth. More than a dozen middle and high school kids encouraged council members to take up the ban. The youngest was first-grader Miles Fetherston-Resch, who, in a gray suit jacket, lowered the lectern to speak.

"Please think about Earth and future generations like me when you vote," he said.

In a chamber where clapping is discouraged, he was the only speaker to earn a round of applause.

Coastal businesses also came to support the ban, including a kayak rental company that operates off Gandy Boulevard.

But the business community wasn't in lock step. St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher encouraged the council to take up a by-request-only policy on straws.

Raphael Perrier, co-owner of local coffee shop chain Kahwa, which has taken steps to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic straw waste in its locations, took issue with the ban tactic. Before the vote, Perrier said he'd rather see people and businesses educate themselves and choose to forgo straws, rather than it being forced upon them. Take his kids, he said.

"When I ban them from doing something, it's not as effective as if they decide not to do it themselves," said Perrier, who offers paper straws for free in his restaurants and sells reusable glass straws. "There's always a resistance when you force something on someone. There's always a better response to something when it comes from them."

The straw and polystyrene bans are the first two legs of a three-legged stool of sustainable regulation the city hopes to enact. The third is a plan to charge 5 cents for plastic and paper bags, like the ones shoppers get at Publix. The bag ordinance, which city officials believe would be the first of its kind in Florida, is still being workshopped in committee.

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