Beach might have to repeal ban on plastic bags, Styrofoam

Just last month, sustainability advocates in St. Augustine Beach celebrated the city’s decision to ban single-use plastic and polystyrene products. But those ordinances, set to take effect Jan. 1, could come under scrutiny now that a similar ban was ruled to be in violation of state law.

In 2016, the city of Coral Gables passed an ordinance prohibiting retailers from giving out plastic bags, plastic straws or Styrofoam takeout containers. It wasn’t long before the Florida Retail Federation filed a lawsuit, citing state statutes that prevent local governments from issuing such regulations.

A Miami-Dade County circuit judge found three state laws preventing local regulation unconstitutional, originally allowing the city to regulate those products. But that ruling was overturned Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeals, siding with the FRF.

Now other local governments across the state are considering repealing their ordinances in order to avoid a costly lawsuit. St. Augustine Beach Planning and Zoning Board member Jane West said the decision is devastating for coastal cities like the Beach.

“I’ve been working for three years to get these passed, it's extremely frustrating,” West told The Record. “I feel that the FRF has an antiquated, short-sided view on how to be stewards of our environment, and in the case of a coastal city like St. Augustine Beach, that behavior borders on reckless.”

The FRF cited a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bill that state lawmakers passed in March 2016. The bill barred local governments from regulating food-related polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, containers and made that prohibition retroactive to any local ordinances passed after Jan. 1, 2016.

Lawmakers this year passed a bill (HB 771) that would have blocked local governments from banning plastic straws, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the measure.

“The state should simply allow local communities to address this issue through the political process,” DeSantis wrote in a veto message. “Citizens who oppose plastic straw ordinances can seek recourse by electing people who share their views.”

West, who is also a practicing attorney, said the city will be forced to repeal its ordinances, but since the ruling doesn’t mention plastic straws, she said, Beach commissioners could rework the laws to continue banning those. But for plastic bags and foam, it’s not going to be plausible in city governments.

“It’s pretty clear that we’re going to need legislation at the state level, not the local level, to address these issues,” West said. “That's going to take some political will that quite frankly does not currently exist in Tallahassee. It’s looking a little bleak.”

The FRF issued letters to multiple municipalities, requesting them to repeal their bans or face legal action. Alachua County commissioners already decided last week to repeal their ban on single-use plastic and Styrofoam. Gainesville also recently passed an ordinance, but officials there say they are still going ahead with it even if they end up in court, the Gainesville Sun reports.

In a statement released Thursday, FRF President & CEO R. Scott Shalley said the court ruling ensures that Florida remains a business-friendly state.

“Florida’s retailers have a vested interest in a healthy and sustainable Florida,” the statement reads. “Our retailers spend millions of dollars every year on identifying ways to reduce our collective ecological footprint. We will continue to focus on solutions that are based on science and the importance of responsible consumer education and behavior.”

As for the Beach, West said she thinks local businesses will continue their efforts to reduce the amount of plastics they use because it’s what their customers want.

“I think the overwhelming majority of businesses within the city of St. Augustine Beach, with the exception of heavyweights like Publix, are already very cognizant that they’re operating in a fragile, coastal community and that most of the people that visit their businesses really love these steps that are being taken that are protective of the environment,” she said. “They're going to continue doing these efforts because it makes good business sense, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room that’s the problem here.”