The St. Petersburg City Council approved a ban on plastic drinking straws in restaurants and most other food establishments starting in 2020, after a two-and-a-half-hour debate that pitted business interests against environmental concerns.
Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, urged council members to reject the ban, saying it was not an inclusive strategy for growth. He was one of just two opponents in a city council chamber packed with supporters of the proposal, including environmentalists, some small business owners, many school-age children and Karl Nurse, a former city councilman.
The ordinance follows a “No Straws St. Pete” campaign that launched last spring, in which dozens of local restaurants said they would not give out plastic straws unless a customer requests one. Straws are a major contributor to coastline pollution, environmentalists say.
The measure approved Thursday night by a 5-to-2 city council vote keeps the “request-only” policy in place until Jan. 1, 2020, when the full ban would take effect.
Between Jan. 1, 2019 and March 31, 2019, there would be no penalty for violating the request-only policy, but restaurants would get warnings after April 1. After Jan. 1, 2020, restaurants that violate the ban would face a $40 first-time fine, and an $80 fine for subsequent violations.
Drive-through restaurants are exempt from the ordinance. An education and outreach campaign is planned and council members said they want to see how that is going next fall, before the full ban takes place.
Steinocher raised questions about that planned campaign.
“We’ve heard that we have a lot of great partners in this room and in this community, but we don’t have a sustained strategy of how we’re going to educate and communicate these things. We should have had a budget for this, we should have had a strategy for exactly how will we get to all these businesses,” he said.
He also said the measure could be expensive, in some cases costing $18,000 a year to get alternatives to plastic straws.
“That’s $18,000 that leaves our community, that does not employ people, that does not get invested back, that leaves because we don’t have a local source,” Steinocher said. “We have talked to many of you about creating a community-owned cooperative that would create straws; that would be a strategy that would create jobs and an economy and the straws we’re looking for. But right now there just aren’t enough viable options.”
But Nurse, a businessman who served for 10 years on the council until early this year, said he was glad to see the council take concrete action.
“It’s easy to pass resolutions to say clean up the environment or make the world more efficient. But this is a concrete action. Is it a big thing? I really don’t think it’s a big thing. But it’s progress. It’s going to be a thousand little steps and you just have to get started,” Nurse said.
He cited his own business experience. When he started work 40 years ago, there was a 55-gallon drum of lethal dry-cleaning fluid next to his desk.
“Governments passed laws that made people change, and in all those cases, people found more innovative, less expensive, less dangerous alternatives,” Nurse said.
The ordinance approved last night additionally bans the use of expanded polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, on city-owned property.
Council members voting for the measure were Charlie Gerdes (who is in line to become council chair next year), Brandi Gabbard, Darden Rice, Gina Driscoll and Amy Foster. Opposing the measure were Ed Montanari (next year’s council vice chair) and Steve Kornell, who was acting as chair in the absence of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
A council committee also is studying a measure to place a fee on single-use paper and plastic bags.