With last year’s styrofoam ban upheld by a Miami-Dade judge, the city of Coral Gables, south Florida’s “City Beautiful,” is stepping into the eco-regulation fray with another initiative. This time, to “ban the bag.”
At a March 14 meeting, the Coral Gables City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance prohibiting plastic bags being used by retailers or at special events – with a few exceptions. A final vote, which would make the ban official, is expected on May 8.
Coral Gables would be the first city in Florida with a plastic bag ban.
“Coral Gables has strict zoning laws of which you wouldn’t believe the minutiae and nitpicking,” according to WLRN. “If something is ‘decayed’ in Coral Gables, even lushly, you risk getting beaten to death with a perfectly manicured palmetto branch that can only be removed Thursdays at 4:00 a.m. by the mayor’s cousin.”
And if the city does enact the bag ban, it would also be operating in defiance of existing state regulations – but perhaps not for long.
Two bills in the state legislature are poised to allow cities across Florida to legally join Coral Gables in this popular regulation.
Ban on the ban
In 2008, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that prohibited cities and municipalities from instituting retail bag bans until such time as the Department of Environmental Protection could make recommendations on the practice. The DEP’s Retail Bags Report came out in 2010.
State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been introducing bills for several years to allow bag ban programs in the state.
The third consecutive iteration, this year’s HB 93, would allow coastal or otherwise water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to initiate a pilot program banning plastic bags. The accompanying Senate bill, SB 162, has made it through its first committee stop.
If enacted, the man-made island of Miami Beach, population 92,312 according to the latest available Census estimates, would be allowed to begin a bag ban trial program. On the other side of Biscayne Bay, the city of Miami, with its 2,712,945 residents, would not.
Richardson was not available for comment. But his legislative assistant, Luis Callejas, told Watchdog that this was the result of legislative negotiations to advance the bill.
“Initially, it was for any city in the state,” said Callejas. “[Our goal is] just to make sure that interest groups know that this is a big concern for Miami Beach and coastal communities in general.”
Callejas said that the larger goal of this legislation was simply to get these environmental issues more attention in the legislature, but that the Florida Retail Federation had successfully blocked previous bag ban bills from advancing in the House.
The Florida Retail Federation had not responded to Watchdog’s requests for comment at the time of publication, but FRF spokesman James Miller told the TC Palm that the ban hurts the “ability of each retailer to respond to the demands of its customers,” particularly when navigating different regulations in different municipalities.
“Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and retailers have embraced their role in recycling these materials,” he said, adding that there is no perfect environmental solution.
A little less conversation
At the state legislature, the bag ban talk might be more for show.
But for Coral Gables, the activity on the ban is real.
If Coral Gables does pass the ban in defiance of existing state law, it can expect to be sued by the state.
Marilu Flores, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Miami chapter, told Watchdog that they have offered the city legal assistance in the event of a suit.
“What’s happening in Coral Gables is very interesting because it’s putting pressure in Tallahassee that this is what people want,” she said, adding that Surfrider has drummed up 40 letters of support from different Florida communities interested in their own bag bans.
Callejas also said the Surfrider Foundation has been instrumental in crafting the language of the bill and pushing the legislative agenda.
Surfrider’s involvement in the Florida issue is longstanding. It has been active in pushing legislation in the past few years and tried to thwart the initial legislative bag ban pre-emption.
Flores said she was hopeful. “This year, we’ve seen some movement that haven’t seen in years past.”
She added that Florida was uniquely situated to benefit from a ban, and that aside from all of the obvious wildlife and ecological pollution problems, plastic bag pollution is a “huge financial disruptor as well.”
Miami Beach found that loose plastic bags interfered with the city’s floodgate mechanisms and worsened flooding problems, she said.
Surfrider is one of the most visible advocates behind a nationwide epidemic of bag bans.
Florida alone has eleven Surfrider chapters, with many more across the country, all of which coordinate with the organization’s Malibu headquarters.
Surfrider bills itself as a community of everyday people who are the “champions of surf and sand.”
However, investigations into the national organization suggest that Surfrider sometimes skirts the laws that govern not-for-profit entities.
Solving the wrong problem
In addition to questions about the organizational integrity of the bag ban’s loudest advocate, the movement’s claim to scientific integrity and environmental dedication is undermined in another way: the empirical results of places that have already tried the ban.
“Plastic bag bans haven’t been transformative anywhere else. This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the free-market Reason Foundation.
He told Watchdog that plastic bag bans do not have a significant impact on litter reduction. Reusable plastic bags make up only 1 percent of litter found in a typical city, and even less than that of the solid waste in landfills.
Moore added that the heavy duty reusable bags that people turn to when grocery plastic bags are banned are not necessarily better for the environment, given the greater resource and processing demands of making them.
He called bag bans a kind of “cop-out,” allowing cities to avoid asking the real questions about why we have problems with litter (including plastic bags) getting into the environment, be it lack of garbage cans, insufficient public education, or not cleaning up after events, for starters.
Moreover, Moore said that a lot of these cities that pass bag bans are those with environmentally conscious, better-off residents. In other words, places where people are already likely to be mindful of reusing bags and stewarding the environment – and where the impact of bag bans is particularly negligible.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states proposed legislation regulating the retail use of plastic bags in 2015 and 2016. The only laws that passed were in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri, all of which pre-empted city bans.
California has the oldest statewide ban, passed in 2014. Hawaii effectively has one as well, given that all of its largest cities have passed bag ban ordinances.
At the city level, there has been even more activity, with cities like Austin, Chicago and Seattle passing legislation regarding the use of plastic bags. Others, such as Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; and Washington, D.C., have instituted bag fees.
The results are underwhelming. In Washington, the evidence of definitive success isn’t there. The bag tax money has been used for purposes like school field trips and personnel costs, as opposed to the environment initiatives that it was earmarked for.
In Brownsville, the legality of local bag fees has come under question.
But maybe Florida would be different?
“No,” said Moore. “There’s nothing unique about Florida.”
“If you have a litter problem, you have a litter problem, not a plastic bag problem.”
Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog.