City of Sarasota endorses legislative bills that would permit pilot programs regulating plastic bags

Two members of the public talk of the damage the bags cause to the environment and wildlife

Photo by GorillaSushi via Wikimedia Commons

With two members of the public having stressed the related environmental concerns, the Sarasota City Commission this week voted unanimously to ask the Florida Legislature to allow municipalities to regulate the use of plastic bags provided by retailers.

House Bill 93 and Senate Bill 162 would allow any coastal community with 100,000 or fewer residents to establish a pilot program regarding plastic bag use. This is the third legislative initiative in recent years to allow municipalities to take action on their own regarding plastic bags, a city staff memo said, with none having made it out of committee.

A Sarasota News Leader check of the Senate bill’s status on April 4 showed that the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee voted 4-1 in favor of it on March 22 and that as of March 23, it was awaiting a hearing by the Community Affairs Committee. The House bill was in the Local, Federal & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, where it had a first reading on March 7.

Both bills call for any municipality that establishes a pilot program banning disposable plastic bags to collect data on the impact of its action and submit a report on its findings during a public hearing held no later than April 1, 2020. The bills also prohibit the imposition of any taxes or fees in conjunction with the pilot program.

The Senate version was introduced by Democratic State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami, while the House bill was introduced by Democratic state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach.

Pleas for the environment and home rule

Larry Grossman and Jana Hoefling appear before the City Commission on April 3. News Leader photo

Sarasota native and life-long resident Jana Hoefling was the first person during the April 3 meeting to urge the City Commission to approve a resolution in support of the latest bills. She acknowledged that a number of people had asked her why she cared about the issue when the city had what they considered far more important concerns, such as how best to help the homeless and how to provide more affordable housing. Others have told her people should have the right to use whatever types of bags they choose, she said. Nonetheless, Hoefling pointed out, “Data shows that these are not valid arguments. The plastic bag is like an experiment that is going horribly, horribly wrong.”

A poster at Mote Marine’s facilities says that in 2015, necropsies its staff performed on turtle hatchlings that had washed ashore in the county showed “plastic debris in the intestinal tract,” Hoefling continued, in spite of the creatures’ very short lives. Bags degrade in the water, she said. “These animals think that they’re eating plankton, and it’s plastic.”

Hoefling also asked the board members to consider that in light of nutritionists’ advice that people should eat more seafood.

Furthermore, she noted, research has shown that only 12% of the 100 billion U.S. plastic bags used each year are recycled, and “it takes 12 million barrels of oil to make those bags. So it’s a huge environmental catastrophe.”

City Manager Tom Barwin (left) joins other city staff members in a cleanup initiative on Lido Key Beach in March. Photo courtesy of the City of Sarasota Facebook page

Cities around the world have passed laws prohibiting the use of plastic bags, Hoefling added, saying she hoped the commissioners would “lead Sarasota in doing the same thing.”

Longboat Key resident Larry Grossman praised Hoefling’s presentation. Then he also asked the board to approve the resolution, noting that he wanted to be able to take a copy of it to the Longboat Key Town Commission. He has been unsuccessful in the past, he added, in persuading that board to adopt a similar stance.

Having just visited Tallahassee, Grossman continued, he is aware that the Legislature has pre-empted local governments from taking action on their own to implement plastic bag bans. Yet, the latest initiative is for a pilot program, he stressed.

Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

City Manager Tom Barwin also emphasized that fact. Stevie Freeman-Montes, the city’s sustainability manager, concurred.

“It’s just allowing us to have the conversation,” Freeman-Montes told the city commissioners, adding that the City of Venice had lent its support to the current legislative initiative.

The City of North Port has, as well, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

As a volunteer with Mote’s sea turtle nesting program, Grossman told the commissioners, he soon “will be walking the beaches of Longboat Key … Plastic is bad for the beaches, bad for the turtles and bad for the wildlife and bad for us.”

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell pointed out that she and Commissioner Liz Alpert had participated in a Saturday cleanup of Lido Beach a couple of weeks prior to the April 3 board meeting. “Indeed, there were plastic bags … I’ve seen [the situation] firsthand,” Atwell added, calling it “very frustrating.”

Freeland Eddie said she knows small business owners are concerned about the potential increase in their costs if they have to provide bags that are not plastic. “But, at the same time, the environmental concerns are huge. … So I would support us having the conversation” about a pilot program, if the Legislature approves such a measure.

His biggest concern, Mayor Willie Shaw pointed out, is the Legislature’s continued efforts to pre-empt home rule for local governments. Barwin agreed.

The resolution includes the clauses, “Whereas, local governments are in the best position to evaluate the impacts of single-use plastic bags to the local area; and Whereas, under Florida’s long tradition of Municipal Home Rule, it is [in] the best interests of the State of Florida to allow local governments to regulate single-use plastic bags.”

When Shaw asked for a motion on the resolution, Freeland Eddie made it. Atwell barely beat out Alpert in seconding it.