The Last Straw for Plastic
May 01, 2020 10:36PM
By Nancy DeVault
The city of Gainesville’s solid waste division picks up about 30 straws per mile along local roadways. Unfortunately, even when people attempt to dispose them properly, straws literally fall through the cracks at recycling centers. Americans use 500 million straws every day, according to the nonprofit Eco-Cycle, and these small tubes contribute to a massive issue. Straws and tons of other plastics create litter, clog landfills, introduce chemicals into the environment and harm animals.
“There is no recyclable market for straws,” declares Gainesville sustainability manager Michael Heimbach. “The recycling processing facilities are not geared toward separating straws from the recycling mix.”
That’s why city and state governments nationwide are establishing legal limits. Gainesville’s single-use plastic straw and plastic stirrer ban passed by the Alachua County Commission last summer took immediate effect with a compliance deadline of this January. The ordinance primary applies to food service providers throughout city limits and unincorporated county areas, but doesn’t impact sales of prepackaged beverages such as juice boxes; boxed straws and stirrers sold at groceries and big box retailers; and exempt medical facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. Businesses may continue to provide plastic straws to consumers with disabilities upon request, but some advocates are concerned about accessibility, because it’s unlikely that all restaurants will continue to restock straws.
Heimbach says the majority of consumers and restaurant/bar owners understand and appreciate the intent of this sanction. “The ban on single-use straws is part of the city of Gainesville’s ‘zero waste’ strategy which aims for reduction in waste sent to landfills and mitigate environmental impact,” he says. It’s part of an aggressive goal to achieve a 75 percent recycling rate this year, 90 percent by 2030 and zero waste by 2040.
City commissioners have voiced their desire to position Gainesville as an environmental leader. Other cities in the Sunshine State have passed similar bans as well, including Coral Gables, Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale Beach, Surfside, Miami Beach, Palm Beach, St. Petersburg and Stuart. Local code enforcement began issuing hundreds of violation warnings in October, although no penalties ($250 fine) have been cited. “City staff is working with noncompliant businesses to meet the requirements of the ordinance,” Heimbach assures.
Satchel Raye, owner of Satchel Pizza, in Gainesville, says his customers were not impressed by the straw ban. The pizzeria uses paper cups, but will not shift to paper straws like others have. “They are 10 times the cost and people don’t like them,” Raye says, as paper straws quickly fall apart. But he is now selling bamboo and metal straws. Meanwhile, the city is working to identify additional compostable alternatives such as straws made from wheat and agave, according to Heimbach.
Raye believes Styrofoam products are even worse, and should be similarly addressed as they’ve been in other parts of the country, like New York. The Alachua County Commission actually did pass a ban on single-use Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use plastic bags, but was forced to repeal it because of a Florida Statue which states, “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.”
The current viral pandemic has shed new light on another harmful aspect of plastic—the transmission of disease. Thus, opting for reusable totes or recyclable paper bags is best for many reasons. Consumers may consciously choose to curb the use of straws and other plastics, encourage local and state lawmakers to improve regulations and review recycling guidelines. A 90-page guide detailing disposal procedures for everything from food to electronics is available at Tinyurl.com/GainesvilleRecyclingSource.
For more information, visit ZeroWasteGNV.com.