Miami Beach

That plastic straw in your Ocean Drive margarita? Kiss it goodbye.

Last year, volunteers picked up 437 plastic straws along a small stretch of Miami Beach. The city may soon ban restaurants and stores from using plastic straws.
Last year, volunteers picked up 437 plastic straws along a small stretch of Miami Beach. The city may soon ban restaurants and stores from using plastic straws. Dave Doebler

The Miami Beach City Commission expanded the city’s ban on plastic straws Wednesday to include sidewalk cafes, parks, marinas, piers and docks. Plastic stirrers were also banned.

Rollout of the policy will be in phases: three months of education for businesses, three months of written warnings for violators, and full enforcement by the Code Compliance Department starting in February 2019.

“When you see firsthand how invasive plastic can be in our environment, it really compels the desire to do something,” Mayor Dan Gelber told the Miami Herald. “We need to be the most plastic-free city in the world.”

The move comes six years after Miami Beach first took action on plastic straws, prohibiting businesses from providing them to beachgoers. But the impact was limited.

“We are still seeing a lot of straws on our beaches as well as other public areas,” Elizabeth Wheaton, the city’s environment and sustainability director, told the commission.

Because plastic straws are small and narrow, they are difficult to collect on the beach and tend to slip through barriers in storm drains, ending up in the ocean. They can take hundreds of years to degrade.

At a cleanup event last year, 10 local bartenders collected more than 400 straws within a two-block stretch of Miami Beach, according to the city’s Sustainability Committee chair, Dave Doebler.

“This is all about protecting our bay and protecting our oceans,” Doebler said. “We’re not trying to completely disrupt business. We’re realizing that we need to take a very methodical approach to how we protect our bay and our oceans from plastic pollution.”

The legislation means sidewalk cafes along Ocean Drive — known for serving margaritas and other drinks featuring straws — will need to find an alternative to plastic. But the timing may be right.

The Ocean Drive Business Association recently found a vendor who sells non-plastic straws that satisfy at least some business owners, according to Ceci Velasco, the executive director.

“We are 100 percent behind this,” Velasco told the commission. “It’s not going to be that you don’t have a straw. It’s going to be that you have a biodegradable and environmentally friendly straw.”

In the past, Velasco said, the association had struggled to find a reliable alternative to plastic straws. Some options, owners found, would simply disintegrate when placed in freezing cold drinks.

But now the association, whose members include dozens of sidewalk cafes on Ocean Drive, is on board.

“The mayor came to us and said, ‘I want to do this,’ ” Velasco told the Herald. “We said, ‘Wow, coincidentally, we have found good products.’ It just kind of all came together.”

Gelber Candidate Cleanup 1a.jpg
In August 2017, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, then a candidate, hosted a 30-person cleanup along MacArthur Causeway, where a team collected 1,100 pounds of plastic trash that came out of Biscayne Bay. Dave Doebler

The Clevelander Hotel, one of the area’s marquee attractions, recently made the switch to paper straws. And Mango’s Tropical Cafe and Ocean’s Ten, two other Ocean Drive staples, also support the effort, said Velasco, who was previously the executive vice president of Mango’s.

“Usually when they take the lead, everybody is very happy to just comply,” Velasco said of the three cafes. “I haven’t had any pushback yet.”

Velasco said the price of non-plastic straws can be up to three times as much as that of plastic ones. But she hopes a reduction in overall straw use will make up for the cost.

The Ocean Drive Business Association is preparing to introduce a “Skip the Straw” campaign, encouraging businesses to move away from providing straws to customers regardless of whether they want one.

Owners, Velasco said, are “coming to terms with a different way of customer service.”

The legislation also prohibits contractors and special events organizers from using plastic straws on city property.

Plastic bags banned at cafes, too, for now

Last July, the City Commission passed an ordinance banning plastic takeout bags at sidewalk cafes. But that was put on hold due to a lawsuit involving a similar ban by the city of Coral Gables.

On Wednesday, the commission chose to move forward with the ban anyway, limiting it to sidewalk cafes. Similar to the ban on straws, the process will begin with three months of education and three months of warning before fines are assessed. An appeals court could soon rule on Coral Gables’ ban on Styrofoam products, which was initially upheld by a circuit judge last year after a challenge by the Florida Retail Association. Coral Gables has defied a state law that said municipalities could not ban polystyrene products.

Should the judge side with Coral Gables, it could pave the way for Miami Beach to enact a broader, citywide plastic bag ban. If the judge strikes down Coral Gables’ Styrofoam ban, Miami Beach would reverse course and allow plastic bags at sidewalk cafes, according to a memo from City Attorney Raul J. Aguila.

Either way, the city will move ahead with a program to incentivize the use of alternatives to plastic. The city has retained a public relations firm to help create a campaign to celebrate businesses that move away from the material.

That could include awarding storefront decals to indicate a business is plastic-free, said Wheaton, the environment and sustainability director. Gelber suggested the city could even distribute its own reusable bags.

The campaign will begin more formally in the fall.

“We’re a barrier island. We have beaches and bays and coastlines, we have pumps, we have turtles,” Gelber said. “We are the best place to be pushing this and showing how to do it right.”