By Jorge Gonzalez, ICMA-CM
In the old days, sun, sand, and surf might have been enough for managers of coastal communities to protect. But with growing public engagement on questions of environmental quality, a global issue can quickly become a local matter.
In Bal Harbour, Florida, a community of about 3,000 people surrounded on three sides by pristine waters, the issue of limiting single-use plastics arose quickly. We are home to a mix of condominiums, impressive beach hotels that have hosted presidents, and an internationally known, upscale shopping destination–the Bal Harbour Shops. What started as an initiative to research banning plastic straws expanded to become one of the most complete bans on single-use plastics in Florida.
Few have not seen the disturbing images of marine life and plastic pollution. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60 percent of all seabirds and 100 percent of sea turtle species,1 and eight million metric tons are estimated to enter the ocean each year.2
The Ocean Conservancy’s 2018 International Coastal Cleanup3 found that plastic bags, lids, straws, and stirrers were among the top 10 most frequently collected items by thousands of volunteers who tracked debris. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and numerous state agencies are partners in the organization’s annual cleanup.
As village manager, I had to anticipate the kinds of problems we’d face in getting an ordinance passed—in terms of gaining business support, drafting appropriate language, and managing enforcement. Here is Bal Harbour’s story and the lessons we learned, which may be helpful to other communities that are considering similar environmental action.
The Bal Harbour Story
The story really started in January 2019 with our annual strategic retreat, an informal (but open to the public) daylong session where elected officials and staff can identify and prioritize shared policy goals. Healthy discussion of the pros and cons of a plastics ban took place at this meeting. What emerged was a consensus: A plastics ordinance would come up in formal session later in the year.
First, we did our homework. We were well aware of the worldwide movement to keep oceans clean and sea life safe by reducing plastics. Florida’s tourism and entertainment icon—the Walt Disney Company—announced a plan to eliminate single-use plastic straws and stirrers globally by the middle of 2019. And in our community, where two of four hotels are run by Marriott, we found a similar plastic straw ban already in progress. As our mayor, Gabriel Groisman, succinctly noted, “That’s what consumers want.”
We also found that on the retail side, shops and restaurants were likewise on their way to limiting plastics. With this level of momentum, we felt that we could afford to be bolder, with a more sweeping, protective ordinance that went beyond plastic straws.
An important part of our research and preparation was making direct personal contact with affected businesses. Hand delivering the idea—which admittedly is easier in a small municipality—allowed us to assess how long the phase-in period should be, what exceptions might be needed, and how to handle enforcement.
First, for practical reasons, we decided to keep the focus strictly on commercial use—hotel and retail. As Mayor Groisman put it, “It’s not a good practice to ban personal use. We don’t want to have law enforcement come up on people having a picnic.”
Second, we drafted exceptions for medical and dental facilities, for schools, for state or federal government entities, and for individuals who could request a reasonable accommodation for medical, physical or religious reasons.
In drafting language, a somewhat tricky aspect was crafting definitions. What exactly is “single use”? It might be easy to define, for example, a situation where a soft drink and straw are served alongside each other, but what about a kid’s juice pack? Our ordinance created an exception for prepackaged drinks, where the straw is integral to the packaging.
In defining “single use,” we also used identifiable standards for such items as reusable bags, recyclable paper bags, and compostable carryout bags. Here too, we had to give thought to exceptions ranging from food contamination protection to pet waste bags.
Finally, we decided to implement the ordinance in stages. First, we will conduct a public education campaign until October 1, 2019, allowing vendors to deplete their existing stocks of plastic items. After that, we will start a 60-day written warning period during which our code compliance officers will issue notices of violations. Full compliance, with fines of $250 per infraction for a commercial establishment and $25 for any individual selling or distributing single-use plastics, will begin December 1.4
Even as we moved forward with our ordinance, we made contingency plans in case of a possible preemption at the state level. At the state capitol, the Florida House and Senate passed legislation that would have created a five-year moratorium on plastic straw ordinances. Knowing a preemption effort was possible, our ordinance was designed to be “severable,” meaning that even if one subsection of the ordinance became unenforceable, the rest of it would remain in effect.
Fortunately—and to our pleasant surprise—Governor Ron DeSantis issued his first veto as governor in rejecting the moratorium bill. In a May 10 message, DeSantis wrote that bans on single-use plastic straws have not “frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interests.”
We achieved community and political consensus with quiet, behind-the-scenes staff work and direct engagement with the business community, and we didn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
For coastal communities, stewardship of the oceans and the larger marine ecosystem is deeply connected to name and branding. In Bal Harbour, we’ll continue to proudly think globally and act locally.
Jorge Gonzalez, ICMA-CM, is village manager, Bal Harbour, Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1 Data based on peer-reviewed research reported by the Ocean Conservancy.
2 Study by Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia, published in Science: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768/tab-figures-data.
3 Ocean Conservancy, 2018 International Coastal Cleanup (https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Building-A-Clean-Swell.pdf).
4 The text of the ordinance can be found here: https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/339545/re_plastics.pdf.