By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton will not join the parade of cities that are banning plastic straws.
Despite pleas for a ban from environmentalists and a group of city schoolchildren, Boca Raton City Council members decided March 25 to instead improve public awareness about how plastic straws harm the environment and marine life and to encourage residents and businesses to voluntarily stop using them.
“We can be a leader and do something different and get voluntary compliance,” said Mayor Scott Singer.
South Florida cities that have enacted plastic straw bans or are phasing them in include Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, Miami Beach and Coral Gables. Large corporations, such as Starbucks, Hyatt, Hilton and American Airlines, also are discontinuing plastic straws.
City Council member Monica Mayotte urged her colleagues to join the effort.
She proposed a phased-in approach, starting with restaurants providing plastic straws only on request. After their straw inventory is depleted, they would have to switch to straws that are not made of plastic. Exceptions would be made so straws could be provided to people with disabilities, while stores could still sell plastic straws.
“Plastic straws are just the beginning. I call it the low-hanging fruit,” Mayotte said.
She would like eventual bans on plastic water bottles, grocery bags and utensils.
Her proposal garnered strong support from environmentalists, who outlined the harm caused by the estimated 500 million plastic straws used each day in the United States.
Many end up in the ocean, where they do not biodegrade. Instead, they break up into small pieces that are ingested by marine life, often causing death.
Plastic straws are only one part of the problem. A recent report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic trash of all types than fish, by weight, if nothing is done.
Speaking about plastic straws, Drew Martin of the Sierra Club said, “We are using a temporary item that could last 1,000 years in the environment. They don’t biodegrade.”
While all council members acknowledged the problems caused by plastics, they were swayed by a video of testimony by a member of Disability Rights Florida, who said many disabled people need straws to drink, and nonplastic alternatives are inferior. Governments enacting bans could be sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
Christopher Cartenuto, with Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox in Boca Raton and Deerfield Beach, said he does not provide straws unless asked and that “has reduced our consumption about tenfold.”
But he argued against a ban.
“More rules are just not a great way to go,” he said. “Let the market decide. Let us as business owners make the decision.”
Another factor is that a bill has been introduced in Tallahassee that would require local governments to wait five years before enacting or enforcing a plastic straw ban to give the Florida Department of Environmental Protection time to study the issue.
This is part of the Florida Legislature’s multiyear effort to diminish home rule, a provision in the Florida Constitution that gives local governments the authority to deal with local issues.
Singer said a ban would be bad for businesses, in part because nonplastic alternatives cost more. And because a ban might be effectively outlawed, Singer said, he wanted to do something else “that is bulletproof.”
He proposed a series of measures that would encourage city residents and businesses to voluntarily use fewer plastic products.
They include providing and eventually selling city-branded reusable water bottles, grocery bags and straws, reducing the city’s use of plastic products and stopping the use of Styrofoam cups and plates, and encouraging business owners to use alternatives to plastic.
He would expand Boca’s Coastal Connection program, which recognizes restaurants that are environmentally friendly with a starfish rating that they can advertise and promote.
Restaurants earn one starfish if they provide straws by request only, reusable tableware and non-plastic takeaway containers. Two starfish are awarded for also providing environmental education for staff and customers, starting a recycling program, and conserving water and energy. A three-starfish rating goes to those who also reduce light pollution and serve sustainable seafood.
Mayotte said she would wait to see whether legislators act against a plastic straw ban. But she indicated she would prefer a ban. “Let’s lead by example and get rid of plastics in the city,” she said. “We have work to do here.” Ú