City's sustainability manager says it's about more than plastic straws.

SARASOTA — Stevie Freeman-Montes would like everyone to take a deep breath, and look beyond the polarizing question of plastic straws vs. paper ones.

A better question, she believes, is: Do you really have to drink your iced coffee or water or basil-pear martini through a straw at all?

And then she poses an even more crucial challenge: How many items in the course of your daily life do you use once and throw away, and how might you reconsider some of these ingrained habits?

If you do need to drink your purchased beverages through a straw, or just prefer one for reasons of your own, there's no law stopping you. And there won't be one in Sarasota for the immediate future.

But Freeman-Montes, the city's sustainability manager, has been whittling away for months on a modest proposal for a city ordinance that amounts to a gentle nudge toward eco-friendliness for restaurants, food vendors and their customers. On Aug. 19 the regulation will make its fifth and perhaps final trip to the City Commission. If it passes, businesses that serve food and drinks on public land — in a city park, say, or a sidewalk cafe — will be required to stop using polystyrene foam products, like insulated disposable cups or clam-shell takeout boxes, and to provide drinking straws only on request.

"We're doing what we can do," Freeman-Montes said, given this state's limitations on bans that are gaining traction elsewhere in the nation.

Florida legislators made it illegal for local governments to prohibit the use of plastic bags and polystyrene, but the city of Coral Gables is challenging such a preemption as unconstitutional, with some success in the courts so far. Lawmakers also placed a moratorium on outlawing plastic straws in the last session, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed that bill in May, siding with environmentalists and municipalities.

"A number of Florida municipalities, including Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and Miami Beach, have enacted ordinances prohibiting single-use plastic straws," DeSantis wrote in his veto message. "These measures have not, as far as I can tell, frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interests."

On Aug. 2, state Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, filed a measure calling for a statewide ban of plastic straws and takeout bags. So the touchy topic is sure to resurface in the 2020 session.

A nationwide pushback against plastic straws — so lightweight that they blow into waterways and fall off conveyor belts at recycling plants — has touched off a counterargument about individual rights that has quickly become politicized. President Donald Trump's campaign has even offered plastic straws for sale with Trump's name on them, contending that "liberal paper straws don't work."

Freeman-Montes hopes the overriding goal of sustainability won't be lost in the rhetoric.

"We’re trying to put a lot of effort into reducing use of single-use items," she says, "no matter what they’re made of."

Plastics problem

Sarasota's proposed ordinance is a way of threading the needle, Freeman-Montes explains — waiting to see how the legal debates play out, but not sitting on the sidelines. As facilitator of the city's drive toward total reliance on renewable energy and its preparations for the impacts of climate change, she hears from residents of all ages who want to see a bigger public push for environmental stewardship.

"We have a massive plastics problem, both locally and globally," she told city commissioners in June. Polystyrene disposables and throwaway plastic straws, she added, "break down into microplastics ingested by wildlife. This conversation has always been about something that we can do as a city to impact this."

Sarasota's ordinance, as crafted, takes into account the rights of individuals with disabilities who need straws — resulting in the broad on-request provision, so no one would be required to disclose a disability — and also the pressures on business owners with tight profit margins. The straws-by-request policy, Freeman-Montes argues, would actually save money for merchants.

In-person interviews this year with city businesses holding sidewalk cafe permits found that 60% had already stopped using polystyrene foam items, and 45% were supplying straws only if customers asked for them.

There's even an exemption in the proposal for groups holding picnics or family reunions on city property. They can have their polystyrene foam plates and cups and ice cream bowls, and leave everything behind for the city's trash collectors.

Or, of course, they could — perhaps as a memorable party theme — ask guests to bring their own personal dishes, utensils and boxes for leftovers, and tote them home afterward to wash.

Reflecting values

Freeman-Montes says she went through a similar type of mental exercise recently, shopping for produce with reusable containers instead of dropping fruits and vegetables in flimsy plastic bags. She had her containers weighed and marked at the checkout stand before filling them, so their weight could be subtracted when she paid.

"It was definitely an extra step," she said, laughing, but it made her stop and think. And she encourages others to "do a scan of the things they use only once in their daily lives, and throw away" — reaching for a paper towel instead of a sponge, or a store's shopping bag instead of their own — and see what items they could easily divert from a trip to the landfill.

Although the new city regulation will be limited to food service permits on public property, Freeman-Montes sees it as a significant step.

"I think in a lot of ways, resolutions and ordinances and policies are meant to reflect the values of the community," she says. "So this is an example of something that has emerged as being really important to our community, and the people who have been meeting with us."