SUMMER GALITZ—“Cities can be the engine of social equity and economic opportunity. They can help us reduce our carbon footprint and protect the global environment. That is why it is so important that we work together to build the capacity of mayors and all those concerned in planning and running sustainable cities.” – Ban Ki-moon
The plastic bag is everywhere. You see them stuffed in your drawers, strewn along the streets, tangled in bushes, floating in oceans, neat and folded in check-out lines, peeking out of stuffed garbage bins, and breezing in the wind. Although these bags are useful items that most of us see or use every day, they are also ruining our planet. What is surprising, however, is that despite the common understanding that plastic bags are harmful, (12 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the 102 billion plastic bags that are used in the U.S. alone annually, more than one million plastic bags are used every minute, 500 billion plastic bags are used annually worldwide, and more than one million birds and 100,000 marine animals die each year from littered plastic), only one percent of these bags are actually recycled worldwide. And plastic, a toxin, does not biodegrade, so that same plastic bag you used for a few minutes to carry home your carton of milk from the grocery store will then sit somewhere on this earth, potentially killing sea turtles and littering our landscape, for hundreds, and even thousands of years afterwards.
To combat this sickening reality, many progressive and enlightened cities in the United States and around the world have banned the use of plastic bags. Most California cities have successful bans, including banning plastic bags in retail stores, minimum ten cent price requirements on paper bags, double bag bans, plastic bag taxes, and recycling laws. Hawaii has also spearheaded efforts to combat issues associated with plastic bags, and in 2012, became the first state to ban plastic bags throughout the entire state. Fortunately, these bans have worked in large part. In San Jose, California, a 2011 ban reduced plastic litter by 89 percent in the storm drains and 60 percent in the rivers; in Ireland, a plastic bag tax reduced plastic bag litter by 95 percent; and in Seattle, 76 percent of the city’s businesses (and 95 percent of its grocery stores) saw an increase in reusable bag usage after the city implemented a bag ban.
Yet, many U.S. cities and states are lagging behind the rest. Some cities are even fighting against plastic-bag laws, such as Austin, Texas, where Representative Drew Springer initiated the Shopping Bag Freedom Act, which bans bag bans and allows businesses to provide any type of bag to its customers. Those opposed to the bag ban in Austin argue that residents treated their reusable bags—which use more energy to make and which leave a greater carbon footprint—as single-use bags. But this unintended effect can be mitigated with increased education and awareness on plastic bag pollution and the importance of using reusable bags responsibly. Furthermore, while no bag is free of environmental consequences, using reusable bags (whether made of recycled plastic or not) is far and away the direction our country needs to unanimously push towards. That includes you, Florida.
Despite Florida’s 1,200 miles of coastline and 11,000 miles of rivers being littered with plastic bags, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation oppose plastic bag bans. Similarly, Florida has a preemption law that prohibits municipalities from banning or regulating plastic bag use on their own. On the bright side, Florida’s Governor, Charlie Crist, signed into law The Energy, Climate Change, and Economic Security Act of 2008, which created Florida statute Section 403.7033. Because of this new section, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was required to carry out a Retail Bags Report. This report analyzed the necessity and effectiveness of statewide and local bag regulations and was submitted to Florida’s Governor, Senate President, and House Speaker in 2010.
While this is a step in the right direction, no local government in Florida can enact any regulation, rule, or ordinance restricting plastic bags until the Legislature adopts the DEP’s report. Regrettably, the Legislature still has not adopted the report, which means that it is currently against the law for local governments to ban, tax, or otherwise restrict the use of plastic bags. Dozens of communities around the state have taken the matter into their own hands and have passed resolutions urging the Legislature to allow for the regulation of plastic bags at the local level. For example, in 2014 the Village of Key Biscayne adopted a resolution imploring the “Florida Legislature to amend Section 403.7033, Florida Statutes to allow for the regulation of plastic bags used by retail establishments, or in the alternative to repeal the ban on local and state regulation of the use of plastic bags.” It’s time for the rest of Florida to stop being blinded by the sunshine and start acting to make progress and create change. In the meantime, keep reusing your reusable bags, recycling responsibly, and being a local activist. With unified, collective efforts, we can have a pollution-free future in the bag.