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 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 via an ordinance that may place the city at odds with state law.
“This is such a big victory for our city,” said City 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, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2019, St. Petersburg will be a straw-by-request-only city, meaning restaurants can only give plastic straws to customers who ask for them. After that first year, though, restaurants 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’s an exception built in for drive-thrus.
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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 wold be no penalties in the first year. After that, the $40 and $80 fines would come into play.
It’s the polystyrene portion of the ordinance that could 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 would only apply to businesses contracted by the city or those doing business on public 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. State law allows cities to restrict polystyrene on city property.
Council members on Thursday also passed a resolution supporting a bill filed in the Florida Senate that would eliminate the state’s preemption rule, paving the way for cities to regulate single-use items as they choose.
The idea of discouraging straw use is nothing new in St. Petersburg. A group of environmentally conscious business owners have been offering straws upon request for months, since the beginning of the No Straws St. Pete campaign began in the spring.
Since then, residents have embraced the cause. Most of those who spoke on the issue supported it — only two spoke against it.
Some businesses, too, have already moved toward reducing or eliminating plastic straw and Styrofoam waste. Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria on Central Avenue began offering straws upon request earlier this year. They eliminated Styrofoam years ago, said owner Tom Woodard, who said he’s passionate about sea life.
An environmentalist and business owner, Woodard says he sees it both ways. It can be more expensive to be sustainable.
Local coffee shop chain Kahwa has also taken steps to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic straw waste in its locations. Though, co-owner Raphael Perrier said he doesn’t support the tactic of a ban. He’d rather see people and businesses educate themselves and decide to forgo straws.
Take his kids: “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 is still being workshopped in committee.
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.