As push to ban plastic grows nationwide, how it could work in Florida

Plastic is everywhere. Bags, bottles, even your favorite blouse are all made with plastic that rarely gets recycled.

Sarah Hancock knows it’s tough to go plastic-free.

“I try. I’m not great about it. But if I consciously make an effort then yes, but not always. I try,” Hancock laughed.

Hancock says she does her best to make a difference with reusable bags.

“Because they’re just better for the environment,” Hancock said. “And why keep throwing them all away?”

Hancock also shops at stores like Lucky’s Market in North Naples, which offers incentives to customers for bringing their own.

“For every bag you bring in and we use to bag your groceries — it could be a plastic, it could be a paper bag, a reusable bag — we will give you ten cents,” said Aeriel Perczak, a manager at Lucky’s.

Lucky’s “Bags for Change” program lets customers donate those 10 cents to local charities, and the company matches it quarterly.

Other communities around the country are doing their part too. Acknowledging the millions of pieces of plastic polluting the oceans, some states have started to ban plastic bags, forcing consumers to switch to paper or reusable.

Even some cities and counties in Florida have tried but failed. Why? Because state law bans plastic bag bans.

The Florida Retail Federation, which represents big name companies like Walmart, Publix and Target sued to keep it that way.

In one case, the group cited three separate Florida statutes to say the state cannot regulate the “use or sale” of certain plastic products like bags and Styrofoam. The City of Coral Gables had argued those statutes were unconstitutional, and is continuing its push. But FRF won its appeal, and now it is forcing communities to overturn their local bans.

WINK News reached out to the FRF, Walmart, Publix and Target for comment and did not receive a response.

WINK News asked municipalities across Southwest Florida if they have looked into implementing plastic bag bans, and those that responded said it is not something they are considering due to the legal issues at hand.

The Town of Fort Myers Beach, however, has started its own initiative to reduce plastic waste.

Since a bag ban is off the table for now, the town decided to take a different route. Last year it commissioned 2,000 reusable bags and handed them out to residents. This year, Bill Veach from the Marine Resources Task Force says the town is looking for sponsors and plans to distribute even more bags over the next few months.

“I think that is becoming more part of the psyche,” Veach said. “That a lot of people are very good about remembering their reusable bags and bringing them shopping.”

Veach said he would like to see more efforts to reduce plastic. Both Fort Myers Beach and the City of Sanibel have already successfully banned plastic straws from the area.

But with all the hype, do bag bans actually help reduce waste? Florida Gulf Coast University scientist and associate professor Dr. Serge Thomas says yes, but only if done properly.

Thomas referenced one study that found banning plastic grocery bags in California actually led to people using more plastic.

“People would buy Ziploc bags; people would buy trash bags, which are very thick,” Thomas said. “Which is the irony of it, when you’re trying to solve a problem. But, instead, you are consuming more plastic.”

The study found that people who would have normally reused their plastic grocery bags had to find a replacement for them, ultimately leading to increased plastic use. Plastic bag bans also increased use of paper bags, which can lead to more trees cut down and ultimately more greenhouse gas emissions and harm to wildlife. Reusable bags have even been found to need more resources in their production, making them more likely to produce greater environmental impacts.

So if bag bans aren’t the answer, how do we battle the world’s plastic problem?

Dr. Thomas says keep learning and be ready to spend more.

“We should invest much more money into research and how we can actually use that waste, which could be a goldmine for others,” Thomas said.

He also sees a tax on bags as a better alternative to a total ban, giving people the chance to think before they use.

“Have more awareness about maybe, ‘Hey. Maybe I should reduce my plastic intake. Maybe I should buy more clothes that are not made of plastic,’” Thomas said.

In the meantime, Dr. Thomas says reduce the amount of plastic you buy, and reuse the plastic you do.

“How much do we value nature? To me, nature has no price,” Thomas said. “Reduce and reuse, and eventually pay a higher price tag for your product that is ecologically friendly. And that will work.”

A lawmaker filed a new bill (SB 40) in August to ban the use of plastic bags and straws.

Way consumers can reduce their carbon footprint

  • Reuse paper and plastic bags or containers
  • Compost
  • Buy compostable or biodegradable products
  • Buy locally grown or locally produced foods
  • Avoid cheaply made products (these are more likely to use environmentally toxic materials)
  • Use public transportation
  • Eat less meat
Reporter:Sara Girard
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