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The Florida Roundup

Plastic Bag Ban is the Latest Battle in Home Rule War

Lydia Bell
Greenpeace erects 15 foot plastic monster to shame Publix for using plastic bags.

It’s called “the plastic monster.” The 15-foot sculpture made of plastic bags, bottles, and packaging visited the state Capitol in Tallahassee earlier this month and has stopped in Publix parking lots throughout the state. Now, the monster is part of an effort by Greenpeace to bring attention to single-use plastics, the companies that use them and legislative efforts to prohibit local governments from banning certain plastic products.


On the Florida Roundup, hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross talk about plastics, the efforts to reduce their use, and who should make decisions about those things with David Pinsky of Greenpeace USA and Jane West of 1,000 Friends of Florida.


Below is an excerpt from their conversation.


The Florida Roundup: Why bring your plastic monster to the Sunshine State?  


DAVID PINSKY:  We brought the plastic monster to the Sunshine State because Publix has failed to take action to reduce single-use plastics throughout its operations and the retailers actively work to ensure that communities across the state cannot ban single-use plastics. By working with the Florida Retail Federation, Publix has supported laws that prevent local communities from enacting plastic bans. And these are anti-democratic laws, and they put short-term corporate profits before environment.


The Florida Roundup: So, David, why not focus on the legislature in terms of engaging at the statewide level? 


DAVID PINSKY: Absolutely. So we were together with allies in the state capital on February 4th for a lobby day with organizations like Surfrider, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Oceania, Sierra Club, Plastic Free Florida. And we brought the plastic monster there and standing there in solidarity.


So we absolutely are supportive of seeing these initiatives in the state legislature to overturn these preemptive laws. But really, when we see that Publix has more or less than [been] bankrolling the Florida Retail Federation to enact these laws in the first place, we also need to see that corporate responsibility. And when communities--whether it's Coral Gables or Gainesville or Surfside--want to see a reduction in single-use plastics and you take on the plastic pollution crisis in their communities, you know, that's their right. And we need to see big companies, big names that, you know, we think would have these good values to support our communities like Publix to get out of the way, stop blocking action and actually be a part of the solution.  


The Florida Roundup: I'll ask you specifically about Publix in a moment, but I do want to take us back to this week's decision by the Florida Supreme Court. It was specifically about a state law prohibiting local bans on polystyrene Styrofoam, not directed at plastic straws or plastic bags. But what does this decision by the Supreme Court to allow essentially the local the prohibition on local Styrofoam bans stand? What does that tell you about the court's attitude toward these local efforts? 


DAVID PINSKY: Well, it's certainly unfortunate to see this news. But what I am confident about is that we have a strong coalition in Florida that is working with this state legislature and Senate Bill 182, for example, that is that has been announced to try to overturn preemption. And so really it's an important moment for us as communities in Florida that come together to support these efforts to overturn these laws and ensure that communities can take action on it.


The Florida Roundup: A Greenpeace report released back in June looked at grocery store chains across the country and their plastic policies and practices. You've mentioned your criticism of Publix here during our conversation. Publix was one of the lowest scoring stores in this. Why was that? 


DAVID PINSKY: Out of the twenty large grocery retailers that we evaluated from all the way to Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Target, Costco, Whole Foods, Publix ranked 15th out of 20. And unfortunately, Publix is failing to take demonstrable action to reduce its large plastic footprint. The company says it's about removing plastic from a couple of thousand mop heads in its sustainability report. It largely focuses on insufficient strategies like recycling to reduce its plastic footprint. When we look at the total number of plastics ever created, only nine percent have been recycled, even more, incinerated in landfills.


The Florida Roundup: Why was it so important for St. Augustine Beach, in your view, to ban plastics like plastic bags?  

 JANE WEST: This has been an issue that I've been working on with a coalition of people in St. Augustine Beach for many, many years. And we just felt that we couldn't sit there and complain about it and then actually not do anything ourselves. And so we decided to take action within our own municipality, the small coastal city of the city of St. Augustine Beach. We've got a population of about 7,000. It's a small geographic city. But we have some of the best beaches in Florida. And we felt that it was really appropriate to take action.


The Florida Roundup: And the reason why cities around Florida have been working to ban or reduce plastics in this coastal state is simply because they're so bad for the environment and the oceans, especially plastics. 


JANE WEST: Sea turtles frequently mistake plastic bags for jellyfish—their primary food source. So they end up ingesting them, but not digesting them. And they die of starvation. People in Florida have a strong affinity for sea turtles. But we see plastic bags all over the beaches stuck up in our wetlands. I mean they're really horrific.


The Florida Roundup: OK, so you get the bag ban through in St. Augustine. 




The Florida Roundup: But then it gets repealed. Yes?  




The Florida Roundup: And the reason for that?


 JANE WEST: That was a direct result of the case that David mentioned. The Florida Retail Federation sued the city of Coral Gables, and the third DCA [District Court of Appeals] came out with a decision basically supporting the Florida Retail Federation. And in the wake of that, literally a week or two later, all of the municipalities and local governments that had passed bag bans got very threatening letters from the Florida Retail Federation, which is heavily bankrolled by Publix, as David mentioned, basically threatening to "repeal your bans or we will sue you. And if we win, we will recover our attorney's fees from you." Quite frankly, that was too big of a threat for a small municipality like St. Augustine Beach to take on.


The Florida Roundup: OK, so where does the issue go from here? Because the big issue around this is home rule in Florida. Critics say that these preemption moves by the Florida legislature invalidate home rule or local decisions, whether it's plastics or gun regulations, even short-term vacation rentals. What are your thoughts about this tension we see in Florida between Tallahassee and the state legislature and cities that are trying to make decisions that their residents are in activism for? 


JANE WEST: I mean, you hit the nail on the head at the end of the day. The constituents have put local people in our local office to make decisions about our local issues. The divestment of home rule by Tallahassee, trying to take over things as local as you know, whether or not a municipality can make a decision on the removal of a tree. I mean, we know best at the local level. So for Tallahassee to be engaging in a slew of preemption bills and this particular legislature is just on a rampage trying to take away power from local government. And this is bipartisan in nature. I am hearing from all over the state. I work in Tallahassee for the legislative session. And from all over the state, we have people that are outraged over the fact that their local government basically has their hands tied behind their backs on these issues.

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