After Bill Dies, Florida Cities Still Can't Restrict Plastic Bag Use

Apr 10, 2014

Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News

Acknowledging the ticking clock winding down the 2014 legislative session, the sponsor of a bill allowing local governments to regulate plastic bag use has withdrawn his measure from consideration. Florida cities currently are prohibited from making rules discouraging the use of plastic carryout bags, as cities in other states have done.

First, some plastic bag history: A few years back, the Legislature put in place a ban on local plastic bag regulations while the state studied rules in other places. In cities like Washington, D.C., stores and restaurants must charge a fee for every plastic bag customers carry away. Although Florida’s study was completed more than four years ago, local governments’ hands are still tied when it comes to restricting plastic bag use. And Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington says he wishes he could.

“I think any movement in that direction, any first step, to be honest with you, would be a welcome first step from local governments,” he says.

Arrington says for one thing, there’s the litter issue. He cringes thinking of a chain link fence he regularly drives past that’s covered in bags from a nearby shopping center. Besides being unsightly, he says the bags cost local governments that must clean them out of storm drains.

“You’d be amazed at how often a pipe can get clogged by a plastic bag that has drifted into a culvert, had grass grow around it, and then will later become the preventative measure or the measure that creates localized flooding,” he says.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami) would have allowed cities and counties to pass carryout bag rules if they want to. But to keep uniformity for statewide chain stores, the bill said they’d all have to use the same rule: No plastic bags allowed and a ten-cent charge for every paper bag— with a the goal of encouraging reusable bag use.

Unloading a cart full of plastic bags in front of a Tallahassee Publix store recently, Joel Leone says he owns several of the reusable ones but never remembers them.

“Yeah, I would remember if I got charged 10 cents every time I came here,” he says.

And he says that’s a great idea for reducing customers’ carbon footprint. Across the parking lot, Alex Maychecek was putting plastic bags full of groceries in her car. She says she also supports the idea of outlawing plastic and charging for paper.

“Yeah, I mean, like 20 or 30 cents, I don’t—cause paper bags are usually bigger anyway, so having to pay an extra 30 cents shouldn’t really make a difference,” she says.

But walking past Maychecek’s car, Rondell Bennett and Patrick Farris say they don’t see the point of the legislation.

“What do plastic bags actually do to people?”Bennett asks.

Farris cuts in, “Can we do something important like legalize weed or something? I really feel like that would help way more than plastic bags. Like, there’s people out there with cataracts and y’all are worried about bags.”

And customer James Stanford says he’s not convinced the legislation would reduce litter.

“I use plastic bags for trash cans at my house to be honest with you. So I feel like outlawing plastic bags or doing that, it would be bad because we can use plastic bags for other reasons.”

That argument was echoed by Samantha Padgett, a Florida Retail Federation lawyer who testified against the bill Thursday. She says stopping people from getting plastic bags at a grocery store will mean they’ll just have to buy them to line their garbage pails and scoop their pets’ waste.

But environmental groups testified the plastic bag recycling rate is so abysmal that they’re much more likely to end up littering nature. 

But the bag debate will have to continue next year, after Bullard withdrew the bill knowing its House companion measure hasn’t moved.

He says, “We talk about the notion of impact to water bodies all the time, especially in this committee, but we don’t talk enough about the human impact on those water bodies and how we can do a better job of mitigating that impact.”

Sen. Daren Soto (D- Kissimmee) offered Bullard a suggestion for next time: Take out the 10-cent paper bag charge and instead offer stores a tax credit to stop offering plastic ones.