Local Bans On Plastic Straws, Sunscreen Up For Debate As Florida Legislative Session Starts

Mar 5, 2019

What started as an effort to prevent local governments from regulating plastic straws morphed Monday into a push for a study on the issue, lumped in with an attempt to prohibit cities and counties from banning certain sunscreens.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Association and Disability Rights Florida are among the groups supporting the study on straws.

A number of environmental groups opposing the proposal (SB 588) argue that studies already show plastic and certain sunscreens are detrimental to the environment.

Sen. Travis Hutson, the bill’s sponsor, told the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee Monday he wants to pump the brakes on prohibiting straw bans forever, as his original proposal did.

Currently, 10 Florida cities regulate the use of plastic straws.

“I realized that I was putting my own thoughts into this and going a little over too far,” Hutson, R-Palm Coast, said. “So I think we should do a study … to see what the actual effect on the environment is with the use of these plastic straws.”

His bill, approved by a 3-1 vote Monday, would now impose a five-year moratorium that would keep local governments from enforcing regulations on plastic straws until a study on the impact of plastic straw bans is completed.

“I’m just a big proponent that government shouldn’t come in and tell a business how to operate,” Hutson said. “The choice should be on the consumers or the business itself if it should choose to go to paper straws, but not be mandated by the local governments.”

The study would look into the environmental impact as well as the quality of life of people with disabilities who “may rely on single-use plastic straws for feeding and hydration."

Olivia Babis, with Disability Rights Florida, argued that a ban on plastic straws poses a risk for people with disabilities, who may not be able to suck on a paper straw. Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said Babis’ argument is what persuaded him to sign off on the revised proposal.

“Nobody wants to see a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, but we also do not want to jeopardize the health and safety for a vulnerable population either, and unfortunately, that is what is happening,” Babis told the Senate committee Monday.

“I think we need to look at where there’s problems with paper straws,” Hutson said. “People with disabilities have trouble with that. Toddlers, it’s actually a choking hazard for them. There’s pros and cons on both sides of the issue and that’s why I’ve kind of said let’s take a step back. Let’s look at all the problems that plastic straws cause and all the problems that paper straws could cause.”

There is no estimate on the costs of the study yet as details continue to be ironed out, Hutson said.

Hutson has an ally in Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who is co-sponsoring the bill a year after he unsuccessfully tried to keep local governments from regulating all utensils, including plastic straws.

The plastic straw debate is just one of the issues this year as cities and counties continue their perennial tug-of-war with the state Legislature over local regulations.

Sunscreen is another source of this year’s skirmish, with a provision banning local sunscreen regulations now tacked onto Hutson’s bill.

Key West recently approved a ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The two chemicals have been shown to be damaging to coral reefs.

Related: Key West To Ban Popular Sunscreen Ingredients To Protect Coral Reef

The Surfrider Foundation’s Holly Parker Curry argued the plastic straw bill should not include the provision on sunscreen regulation, which she said deserves separate scrutiny.

“At every single cleanup we conduct, we find plastics. In fact, generally if you clean the beach for five minutes, you’ll leave with a fistful of straws,” she said. “We don’t need a study. We need action.”

“Frankly, a five year study on something that we already know is problematic and a moratorium for the extent of that is a form of government regulation,” said Parker Curry. “So I find that to be fairly disingenuous.”

Former House Speaker Dean Cannon has registered to lobby on behalf of Islamorada, a village in the Florida Keys that relies heavily on tourism and boasts on its website about its “wide variety of shallow coral reefs” and “underwater habitat for scientific research.”

The measure has two more committee stops before heading to the floor for a full Senate vote. A similar House bill (HB 603), which does not include a study, would restrict food service establishments to distributing plastic straws only upon request.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.