“No hay bolsas plastica.”
These were the words, printed on a piece of paper and taped to a caution cone, that greeted me at the door on my second trip to the grocery store in Rincon. I was a little confused at first and literally thought that they meant that I could not bring in the two bags I had wadded up in my hand, the ones I had intentionally brought back to re-use. Initially thinking it was some kind of shop lifting prevention measure and trying to remember if that sign had been there the first time I went shopping, I put the bags in a recycle bin at the entrance to the store.
Turns out, the sign actually meant that the store itself no longer had plastic bags to put customers groceries in and Rincon’s plastic bag ban had officially gone into effect. Rincon’s mayor, Carlos Lopez Banilla is quoted in this article, Rincon first PR town to ban plastic bags, as stating that, “this is one of many steps Rincón is taking to become an environmental model city.”
I was, quite honestly, overjoyed. There has not been a day of this trip that I have not seen one, if not multiple, sea turtles in the surf. I’ve also been treated to three separate humpback whale sightings and my absolute favorite thing EVER seen while surfing, a tiny seahorse, floating along just under the surface, it’s tail wrapped around a tiny piece of sargassum.
Unfortunately, there has also been rarely a day that I haven’t picked up handfuls of plastic from the shoreline, including numerous pieces of single use bags. Perhaps it sounds a little naive, but I believe in the rights of ocean dwelling animals to assume that everything floating in the ocean belongs there and is therefore fair game as food. These beings have no concept of ‘plastic’ and consume it under the assumption of jellyfish, plankton, sargassum and more. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, over 100 million marine animals die each year due to plastic debris in the ocean.
The bag ban not only moves Rincon closer to it’s goal of being an environmental model city, it makes Rincon, Puerto Rico (est. population 15,000), more environmentally progressive than any city in Florida where there is literally a ban on banning plastic bags, at the state level.
You read that right, local governments in Florida CANNOT currently determine their own laws or regulations concerning plastic bags. Disguised as an environmental measure waiting to come to fruition, Title 29, Chaper 403, Section 7033, states, “Until such time that the Legislature adopts the recommendations of the [DEP], 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.”
What does this mean? The great state of Florida can (and will) take it’s sweet time determining whether it can or cannot find the resources to adopt any of the DEP recommendations. Meanwhile 60 plastic bags will continue to be handed out daily for every single re-usable bag used.
Thankfully, a few people (who are apparently not receiving any political donations from big plastic corporations) have decided to challenge this and Rep. David Richardson (D Miami-Dade), has filed HB 661, allowing cities with less than 100,000 people to pass pilot programs restricting plastic bags, followed by studies on the environmental and economic impacts of doing so.
Locally in NE Florida, Fernandina Beach has it own group, Bag the Bag, dedicated to finding ways to reduce the use of plastic bags and hopes to get Fernandina included in HB 661’s pilot program. Fernandina’s Vice-Mayor, Commissioner Johnny Miller is a prominent member of this group and says, “Both of these beautiful areas (Puerto Rico and Hawaii, who also has a ban on single use plastic) are not only calling attention to the damage to our ecosystem by these bags, but are taking effective action! I will continue to follow their lead and fight against these easily replaced hazards until they go the way of leaded gasoline and those polystyrene McDonald’s burger containers. I would love for my grandchildren to see a photo of a plastic shopping bag and say, “what is that?”
Still wondering what’s the big deal about plastic? Can’t it just be recycled? Used to pick up pet waste? Disposed of properly? The DEP’s 2010 Retail Bag Report is a long read, but one of the things that stuck out to me the most was a line stating that Floridians recycling and re-use of plastic bags is shockingly low, around 12%. As a native Floridian, I not only believe that we can do better, but that we deserve to do better of ourselves.
It’s time for Florida, home to one of the world’s richest diversities of eco-systems, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with numerous rivers, lakes and swamps in between, to commit to protecting what is sacred to most of us. A ban on plastic bags is not too much government regulation, it’s a simple step in the right direction to helping preserve Florida and her immense water ways for future generations.
Links with more info: