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Alachua County Commission Decides To Repeal Plastic Ban After Lawsuit Threat

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Deliberation on the motion to appeal Alachua County’s ban on Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use plastic bags took less than 20 minutes.

“We didn’t want to jeopardize our finances with something we could hold off on and attack later,” Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said.

Less than a month prior, Board of County Commissioners on July 9 unanimously voted to establish a ban on polystyrene, Styrofoam, containers and single-use plastic bags. The ban taking effect in January would have affected only unincorporated areas.

The commissioners six days later received a letter from the Federal Retail Federation and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. It said the county’s recently-adopted ordinance was unlawful according to Ch. 403.7033 of the Florida Statutes and that the letter served as an official recommendation to repeal it or face litigation.

On Tuesday, the commissioners decided unanimously to give notice of an intent to repeal Ordinance No. 2019-14.

The ordinance was in direct conflict with that statute, which reads, “No local government, local governmental agency, or state government agency may enact any rule, regulation, or ordinance regarding use, disposition, sale, prohibition, restriction, or tax of such auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags.”

Commissioners were frustrated by the law’s preemption of what’s known as home rule, which gives local governments the power to create their own regulations.

“You can’t prevent us from doing something we think we have the right to do. You passed an unconstitutional law,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said, aiming his remarks at Tallahassee legislators.

The letter also said the board could be responsible for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and damages, according to county spokesman Mark Sexton.

“It didn’t seem fiscally responsible,” Sexton said. “We’re debating a very tight budget right now.”

Bruce Blackwell, 78, founder of the Vineyard Conservation Society, argued during public comment against the repeal despite the steep price point.

“Stay the course and do not be intimidated by a bully,” Blackwell said. “If you give in once, you will be asked to give in by other people who see this as a precedent.”

He said he has been in conservation since the 1950s and is currently a member of several environmental organizations like the City Beautification Board for Gainesville and Environmental Protection Advisory Committee and the Land Conservation Board for Alachua County.

Though Blackwell was disappointed by the decision, Sexton urged all citizens to use their own power to get a single-use plastic ban on the 2020 ballot.

Citizens are able to create constitutional amendments in Florida by accumulating signatures equal to at least 8 percent of the votes from the prior presidential election.

The Gainesville City Commission also adopted a plastic ban and received the same letter from FRF. City commissioners, though, decided to keep the ban and face legal repercussions, according to Sylvia Torres, the county attorney.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said its concern stems from the lack of consideration from the ban in how long it takes large businesses to replace plastic products and its feasibility.

“Certainly, if you ban something, it will go away,” said Samantha Padgett, FRLA’s general counsel. “But something will come up in its place.”

She said no matter what materials are used, there will always be a concern of how to dispose of them properly and whether or not it can be recycled.

“No, we may not support the ban if these (state) laws weren’t present, but it wouldn’t be because we’re putting our foot down,” Padgett said. “We would want to work with communities and talk about other options.”

There are at least 14 counties and cities that have attempted or are in the process of restricting the use of single-use plastics in some form or another. These areas include Jacksonville Beach, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach, Marathon, Miami, Orlando and Coral Gables, according to a list from travel website Orbitz.

Coral Gables faced the same lawsuit against FRF and won. The opposition has appealed the decision and Alachua County Commissioners are awaiting the court’s decision before deciding whether to reinstate the ban, Wheeler said.

South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard said he was concerned about the harmful health hazards microplastics pose and was optimistic about the Third District Court’s decision in the appeal.

“I am eager to see Third District Court’s appeal decision on plastics, and I hope it’s favorable to us,” Stoddard said.

Despite the differences between the cities and counties, each looks to the other for precedent, according to Stoddard and Cornell.

“We want to follow in their footsteps,” Stoddard said of Alachua County’s efforts.

“We are hopeful to know the outcome of Coral Gables by the time Gainesville ordinance is going through to use as a precedent to know whether to reenact the ordinance,” Cornell said.

While the ordinance may not be in effect, there are local businesses that are still acting on its environmental intentions.

Wyatt’s Coffee, off Southeast Second Avenue, asks its customers if they are staying or going. It’s an effort to reduce waste by providing glasses when possible as opposed to plastic cups. Additionally, they only offer paper to-go bags for pastries, according to barista Noah Millison, 20.

“I wish we could do more regardless of the ban,” Millison said.

Loosey’s Gainesville Downtown, off Southwest First Avenue, doesn’t use any single-use plastics aside from trash bags. It uses paper straws, cardboard take-out boxes and omits plastic silverware, according to bartender Canada Marsh, 35.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that us little guys are out on the front lines trying to save the planet every step that we can, and these huge corporations are screwing it up for everybody,” Marsh said.

About Zahra Khan

Zahra is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.

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