By: Pablo Grijalva, Miami Waterkeeper Intern
On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, Coral Gables became the first city in the state of Florida to ban plastic bags (specifically single-use “carry-out” bags commonly seen in grocery and convenience stores). No other municipalities have yet implemented a plastic ban in Florida because of a de facto “ban on bans” implemented by the state legislature. But, a recent court victory for Coral Gables after they banned Styrofoam products paved the way for this important ordinance to pass. Leading up to this decision, several businesses and residents had expressed their concerns and complaints about the ban, while others claim that the ordinance would be very beneficial to the environment and community. However, with a few clever tweaks to the language of the ban, Coral Gables had no opposition to its final reading of the ordinance -- and the Chamber of Commerce showed up with strong support too, showing that commerce and conservation can go hand in hand!
What’s the Problem with Plastic Bags?
In 2010, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection published an analysis for “the need for new or different regulation or auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags used by consumers…” (Retail Bags Report For the Legislature). In this report, they found that plastic bags:
- are the fourth most common item found in beach clean ups;
- frequently clog storm water pipes and retention ponds;
- cause equipment and operational problems in landfills and waste transfer systems;
- are the biggest “fly-away” issues at landfills (meaning that plastic bags commonly fly off landfills and into residential areas) and,
- caused the injury and/or death of possibly hundreds of thousands of marine animals.
The report offers twelve options for reducing plastic bag waste, but according to Miami-Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto, “none of the recommendations . . . have been adopted,” (Dixon, 2017). These recommendations included:
- Enacting an educational campaign on the problems caused by single-use plastic and paper bags;
- Encouraging In-store recycling;
- Encouraging retail stores to offer reusable bag credit;
- Requiring biodegradable bags as an option in retail stores;
- Requiring a certain additional amount of recycled content in bags;
- Implementing small pilot programs in a few communities;
- Setting a recycling rate goal;
- Requiring bag consumption reduction
- Creating a deposit system;
- Increasing a plastic bag fee over time;
- Placing a flat fee for plastic bags; and,
- Instituting a ban.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection report also showed that other countries are making huge strides towards addressing the plastic bag problem. Namely, Ireland’s 2002 Plastic Bag tax saw a 90% reduction in bag usage and raised $120 million in tax revenue.
Examples of the Success of Other Bans
While Coral Gables is the first city in Florida to pass a ban on plastic bags, many other communities have banned the bag around the world. The most popular types of restrictions include outright bans, followed by recycling requirements, bag fees, and providing sustainable alternatives. A few years ago, the City of San Jose, California was experiencing very similar problems with plastic bags. Damages to equipment in landfills and waste treatment centers cost the city over $1 million every year(“Bring Your Own Bag”) leading to a plastic bag ban in 2011. Since then, the City has seen an 89% decrease in litter found in storm drains, a 60% in litter found in waterways and a 59% decrease in street litter (“Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance,” 2013).
With the reuse and recycle rate of plastic bags at only 12%, finding alternatives to plastic bags has been gaining popularity (“Retail Bags Report for the Legislature”). Paper bags are seen as an easy alternative, but the recycle/reuse rate is only at 36.8% according to the report. Biodegradable bags have been seen as a possible replacement for traditional plastic bags, as they can be broken down naturally. Bags made of cotton or other materials have also become more available. The best option remains the use of reusable bags to reduce unnecessary waste.
Coral Gables is showing how Florida municipalities can support sustainable communities. Miami Waterkeeper was proud to support this ban at both readings of the ordinance, and we thank Commissioner Vince Lago and the Coral Gables City Commission for their inspired and brave leadership on this issue. The new bag ban will be implemented within the coming year and we will be able to better see how effective the ordinance will be in considering local business interests and reducing single use bag waste. Hopefully, the transition will be smooth as residents and businesses find alternatives that will prove to be safer for the environment and community. Ultimately, we hope that other municipalities will follow Coral Gables’ lead and that citizens will continue to demand that their own municipalities implement smart sustainability policies.