Straws to be available upon request
If all goes as planned, five months after the discussions of the topic began at the Sarasota City Commission dais, the board will take its first vote on prohibiting the distribution of Styrofoam products and single-use plastic straws on public property, unless a customer specifically requests a plastic straw.
With final direction from the commissioners on June 17, Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes said an ordinance should be ready for the board members to consider as part of their July 15 agenda.
She added that staff’s recommendation is to begin enforcement with sidewalk cafés in January, when the businesses renew their city permits for use of that outdoor space. In the meantime, Freeman-Montes added, staff would work to encourage businesses to adopt the new policy.
For businesses that lease city property, she said, the regulation would go into effect upon renewal of the lease.
Finally, with special events, she noted, a clause in the ordinance would explain that a violation of the prohibitions would be grounds for city staff to deny the applicant a permit in the future.
In making the motion for staff to proceed with its work on the new regulations, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch also called for the ordinance to address a concern Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie raised earlier that day.
Pointing to language in a similar ordinance put into effect in the city of Orlando, Freeland Eddie asked for an exception that would allow people gathering in city parks for family reunions, for example, to be able to bring in their own polystyrene containers and straws, as long as they took the materials with them when they left.
She did not want to see the City Commission adopt regulations that would make it more difficult for people to use city parks, Freeland Eddie added.
During her June 17 presentation, Freeman-Montes reminded the board members of the discussion they conducted on Feb. 4, following a staff presentation on plastic pollution. The board members ended up asking staff to bring back recommendations on how an ordinance could regulate polystyrene and plastic straw use on public property.
On March 18, Freeman-Montes continued, she appeared again before the commissioners. One concern that arose at that time, she noted on June 17, was the filing of House Bill 771 in the Florida Legislature. That bill sought to pre-empt municipalities from regulating plastic straw use in any way; no measures in effect before the state bill became law would receive “grandfathering” status, she added.
In May, Freeman-Montes pointed out, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed that bill.
Therefore, she continued on June 17, she and Jeff Vredenburg, the Sustainability Program educator, were back before the commissioners to determine how to proceed on drafting the city ordinance.
“Lots of community members … have met with us,” Freeman-Montes told the commissioners. “We have a massive plastics problem, both locally and globally.” For example, she pointed out, microplastics “are being found in the depths of the ocean and all around and being ingested by wildlife.”
A 2015 study showed that of 142 deceased loggerhead turtles on which Mote Marine Laboratory staff conducted necropsies, 72% were found to have microplastics in their digestive systems, she said.
Just within the past month, she pointed out, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had reported that a deceased dolphin found on the shoreline in Fort Myers had two plastic bags in its gut.
Outreach to businesses
In conducting research about potential effects of the proposed ordinance, Freeman-Montes continued, she and Vredenburg had determined that 45 businesses hold city sidewalk café permits and seven food service providers lease city land. Additionally, she said, the city issued 87 permits for special events in 2018, and 85% of those are recurring functions.
During their outreach to the businesses, Vredenburg told the commissioners, they visited 47 locations, spending 5 to 10 minutes at each place to talk with a manager or the owner. They also left flyers about the proposed regulations, he said, along with their contact information. Further, they encouraged business owners or managers to come to the June 17 City Commission hearing.
Staff sent surveys to another 22 businesses, he said.
They learned that 60% of the affected businesses already have ceased using polystyrene. Additionally, he noted, “Twenty-six percent were offering alternatives to plastic straws.”
Only one business “had some contentious points,” Vredenburg explained. That involved straw use as a matter related to personal hygiene, he said: Some people do not want to put their lips on a glass. As a result, he continued, staff recommended the language in the ordinance to allow plastic straw use upon request.
However, as Freeman-Montes noted in the memo she provided to the commission ahead of the meeting, “[S]ustainability staff feels strongly that an upon-request policy should include all types of straws, not just those that are plastic. Encouraging the replacement of one single-use item with another single-use item (even if made of paper) would not provide meaningful impact and awareness on the negative environmental impacts of single-use items in general,” the memo said. “By supporting a policy that includes straws of all materials and pairing it with an educational campaign, a larger reduction of plastic use will likely be felt.”
Moreover, Vredenburg pointed out to the commissioners, none of the business owners or managers indicated that they would have to raise prices if the city ordinance were approved.
He also told the board members that staff research indicated that switching to containers made of material other than polystyrene would result in an increased expense of about 10 cents per item. Yet, eliminating almost all use of straws, he added, would save businesses money.
Staff members also contacted their counterparts in other jurisdictions that had enacted regulations similar to those under review by the Sarasota City Commission, Vredenburg noted. No one in the other municipalities had heard about businesses charging more for food after the regulations went into effect, he said.
Nonetheless, he continued, staff had talked with representatives of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, who said they might be able to offer grants to assist Sarasota businesses in making the transition away from single-use items.
Yet another factor they took into consideration in their outreach, Vredenburg and Freeman-Montes pointed out, would be the impact on people with disabilities. When they met with the city’s Disability Advisory Board, Vredenburg said, they learned that the members’ preference would be for the ordinance to include language stating that restaurants must provide plastic straws upon request. That should eliminate the potential for a disabled person to draw unwanted attention to himself or herself by having to explain the need for a straw, they indicated.
Finally, Vredenburg and Freeman-Montes talked about the emphasis the ordinance would put on educating the public about the new city regulations.
A summer intern at City Hall who attends Ringling College is researching a potential public art campaign to encourage people to reduce their use of single-use plastics, Freeman-Montes said.
Four members of the public who addressed the commissioners about the proposed regulations on June 17 strongly encouraged them to proceed with the ordinance.
Polystyrene containers “are used for an average of 12 minutes each,” Cat Dillard of Sarasota said. “These are convenience items. … There are plenty of alternatives.”
“I really believe it’s time to think globally and act locally, Sharon Jurasuk, a member of an organization called Rethinking Plastic, told the board.
A city resident representing the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club, Crista Lohr added, “We’re finding out more and more and more” the devastating effects of single-use plastics on wildlife and water.