Surfside passes plastic bag ban, backs off on prohibition on plastic flatware

If there was a theme to Tuesday’s Surfside commission meeting, it would have to be compromise.

Tuesday night, Surfside commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance instituting a ban on the sale, use and distribution of single-use plastic bags by commercial establishments, town facilities and properties and special event permit holders. In March 2018 the town passed a similar ordinance involving plastic straws and stirrers that is already in effect.

The passage of Tuesday’s ordinance was not without conflict. The original ordinance called for a ban not only on single-use plastic bags, but on plastic flatware and dinnerware as well, much to the worry of small business owners, some of whom voiced opposition at the meeting.

Mayor Daniel Dietch offered to amend the proposed ordinance to ban only plastic bags.

“Without that compromise I’m not going to support this ordinance,” said Commissioner Michael Karukin “I’d rather see baby steps, crawl before you walk.”

Dietch said he was adamant about getting the town moving at least on banning single-use plastic bags after years of monitoring plastic use.

“We’re not leaving the businesses hanging,” Dietch said. “A lot of work is being done by our administration to help the businesses and the community. Our goal is to move our community in a more sustainable direction. The cynic in me tells me something is better than nothing.”

Before commissioners voted, residents pleaded with them over the practicality of the ordinance. Former Surfside Mayor Eli Tourgeman spoke on behalf of a handful of business owners that were present.

“This will result in a huge financial burden and place us in an economic disadvantage with our neighboring cities,” Tourgeman said. “Mind you, I’m not against the ordinance, I’m against the process.”

Mendel Segal, owner of the restaurant Backyard BBQ and Brew, said overall he was pleased with Tuesday’s decision and that it’s a step in the right direction.

“I’m happy there’s compromise,” Segal said. “I support the concept of being environmentally friendly as long as we’re continuing to make strides forward without putting too much of an [impractical] burden on the businesses.”

According to a town memo, Surfside’s beaches, waterways and streets have been no stranger to the improper disposal of plastics. Plastic items also pose a threat to marine life and contribute to the degradation of drainage and sewage systems in South Florida and beyond. According to the United Nations, about 8 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year.

Plastic “is one of the greatest inventions ever, but we’re loving it too much,” said Stephen Leatherman, the director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, who is known as Dr. Beach for his annual lists of best beaches. “We see a lot of it washed up on beaches. The bane of plastics is they don’t break down easily.”

Surfside commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance instituting a ban on the sale, use and distribution of single-use plastic bags.

Surfside resident Jennifer Rotker said she’s already seen positive effects of the town’s plastic straw ban and was open to a more comprehensive ban, including plastic flatware and dinnerware.

“I hosted a beach cleanup before Surfside passed the single-use straw ban to raise awareness about the impact this garbage was having on the ocean,” Rotker said. “The difference after [the ban] was quite noticeable. I feel that if we are a socially conscious community, we need to take this step forward.”

Commissioner Tina Paul said she was willing to accept the ordinance on any terms even if it included a ban on plastic ware.

“We can’t keep living on convenience and think it doesn’t affect anything,” Paul said. “We’re Surfside. We’re a beach town. We care about our environment.”

Surfside’s move comes after a slew of South Florida cities enacted legislation banning some forms of single-use plastic. Cities such as Miami Beach, Coral Gables and the Village of Pinecrest have enacted ordinances restricting the use of plastic bags and straws.

Miami Beach is mulling a plastic bag ban and expansion of its plastic straw ban, prohibiting their use in restaurants and stores. In April, Bal Harbour approved an ordinance that bans commercial businesses from using single-use plastics.

In 2017 the State of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation Inc. and Super Progreso Inc. sued Coral Gables over the city’s ban on Styrofoam products. A judge upheld the city’s ban, ruling that a state law that prohibited municipalities from banning Styrofoam containers was unconstitutional. The state appealed the trial court’s decision, and it’s currently being considered by the Third District Court of Appeal.

Coral Gables instituted a plastic bag ban in May despite the appeal.

“In discussions with our town attorney, we believe a decision will be rendered,” Dietch said. “If we need to amend or rescind [our ordinance], then we can still do so. There is momentum building with other communities. We have the opportunity to conduct a robust public education campaign now with our residents and businesses to help educate them on this important topic.”

Environmentalists and municipalities earned a big win in May when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have restricted municipalities for five years from instituting a ban on plastic straws.

Surfside’s plastic bag ban won’t be enforced until March 2020. A public education campaign on the ordinance will be conducted this fall to inform businesses about it and help with finding alternatives to plastic bags. The city has yet to report the anticipated cost of the campaign.

Dietch said he sensed before Tuesday’s meeting a compromise on the original ordinance would be needed.

“I often say to people you don’t have to do everything, you have to do something,” Dietch said. “What we’re talking about here is changing behaviors.”