Miami Beach

In an effort to reduce ocean pollution, Miami Beach mulls citywide plastic straw ban

Cities ban single-use plastic products to help reduce ocean pollution

About 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year, according to the United Nations. Some cities have banned single-use plastic products including straws and bags.
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About 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year, according to the United Nations. Some cities have banned single-use plastic products including straws and bags.

Plastic straws could soon be a thing of the past in Miami Beach.

The city is considering banning plastic straws and stirrers from restaurants and stores in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Elected officials also plan to discuss restricting other single-use plastic products. Miami Beach already bans straws from beaches and all city property including parks and sidewalk cafes.

“The way things change in this country is small incremental change,” said Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who sponsored the proposal. “Eventually I believe we will have a day where we don’t use plastic bottles to drink a cup of water or plastic bags to carry groceries to our car. There are plenty of alternatives but we have opted for convenience rather than sanity.”

Plastic straws are only one contributor to plastic pollution, but because of their narrow shape they tend to slip through storm drain filters and end up in the ocean. Particles from straws and other plastic products can be ingested by marine life, harming sea turtles and fish. They also take hundreds of years to degrade.

In Miami Beach, straws are one of the most commonly found items during beach cleanups. Last year, for example, volunteers picked up nearly 450 straws in a three-block span, said Dave Doebler, the co-founder of VolunteerCleanup.Org.

“While straws are just a drop in the bucket of the larger marine debris issue, these kinds of actions are important first steps in starting a broader conversation on the issue and getting consumers in the habit of plastic reduction in a way that is not a significant impact to their lives,” Doebler said in an email.

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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

While banning plastic straws may not have a big impact on consumers, some restaurants complain that alternative products are more expensive, can be more difficult to obtain and aren’t as sturdy as plastic.

“The paper straws dissolve,” said Madeline Sanchez, the manager at Tapelia on Lincoln Road, and pieces of soggy paper can become a choking hazard for children.

“It’s not a good idea” to ban plastic straws, she said.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said that it can be difficult for businesses to find a steady supply of alternative products and that the association’s members “need to be assured that there is an adequate stock.”

“The hospitality industry has been proactive in seeking environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic straws,” she said in an email. “We wish to be a partner with our cities in these types of efforts, but we do need the freedom to operate in a cost-effective, consistent and customer friendly manner.”

Some Miami Beach businesses have given up single-use plastics voluntarily as part of a city campaign to encourage businesses to switch to alternatives.

Jerry Libbin, president and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, said that while the chamber’s board has yet to discuss the proposed ordinance, the chamber’s resiliency committee supports it.

“We are very supportive of the initiatives on sustainability and we support the efforts of the city” to limit plastic waste, Libbin said.

Trash is a major problem in our oceans, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here's how long it takes for some of the most common types of trash to decompose — including straws, plastic bags and balloons.

If Miami Beach passes the ban, which commissioners will consider at their July 17 meeting, the new rules would be implemented in phases. The city would first launch a public education campaign and then issue written warnings. The ordinance wouldn’t take full effect until May 2, 2020, when businesses would start facing fines ranging from $50 for a first offense to $500 for multiple violations within a 12-month period.

Under the proposed rules, restaurants would still be allowed to give plastic straws to people who have a disability that makes it difficult for them to use alternatives. In addition, restaurants or stores with an annual income under $500,000 would be able to apply for a waiver if they can show that replacing plastic straws would cause a financial hardship. Most Miami Beach restaurants have an annual income of more than $500,000, however, so only a small number would likely be eligible for the waiver.

At the July commission meeting, elected officials also plan to discuss banning all single-use plastics once a lawsuit against the city of Coral Gables for taking similar measures has been resolved.

Coral Gables passed a ban on Styrofoam products in 2016 despite a state law that municipalities can’t ban polystyrene products. The Florida Retail Federation sued the city later that year. A circuit judge initially upheld Coral Gables’ ban, but an appeals court has yet to rule on the case. Miami Beach has been hesitant to pass broader restrictions on plastic products until the lawsuit has been resolved.

If Miami Beach passes the straw ban next month, it would join a growing number of U.S. coastal areas restricting plastic products.

Seattle banned plastic straws and utensils last year and California has banned restaurants from giving straws to customers unless they ask. In Florida, at least 10 cities have rules governing plastic straws.

Plastic straw bans have generated controversy in Florida. This year, the state Legislature passed a bill to keep cities from enforcing the bans for five years, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it.

Arriola said that DeSantis’ veto wasn’t the main factor driving the local ordinance, but does indicate an “appetite” at the governor’s office for measures that reduce plastic waste. Instead, Arriola said he was motivated by a belief that Miami Beach should take a leadership role in reducing plastic waste like it has in preparing for sea level rise.

“One of the things people are really looking to us for leadership on is the environment,” he said. Plastic bans “may be inconvenient,” he added, “but we have to start sometime and I do think that we can lead the way.”

Mayor Dan Gelber, who is co-sponsoring the ordinance, said he agrees with Arriola that Miami Beach should take the lead in reducing plastic waste. “We’re a barrier island that’s re-doing its storm water system and has wildlife in beaches all around it,” he said. “If not us, who?”

Miami Herald staff writer Carlos Frías contributed to this report