City commissioners finalize plans to limit plastic straws in city limits and other plastics on city property

STUART – Propelled by local activists and environmentalists to raise a standard against the ongoing tide of plastics pollution, the City Commission finalized its policies and regulations to begin restrictions on the distribution of plastic straws in the city limits and single-use plastics in city-owned venues as early as next year.

Commissioners and staff spent hours during their third plastics workshop Sept. 23 discussing when and how to limit plastic straws and how much grace period to give both restaurants and event planners, the latter who will face even tougher restrictions on food service materials provided in city parks and other venues.

Public Works Department Program Manager Anne Ellig presented commissioners a couple of choices on plastics alternatives to offer the vendors who will be affected beginning Jan. 1 when single-use plastics will be prohibited on city property and all beverage containers must be recyclable.

“So we want to pivot from plastic and Styrofoam, but what can we do?” she asked rhetorically. “What materials are available to us to replace these? If we look at biodegradable and compostable products, in general these products are made from renewable, plant-based sources. They require less energy and produce less co2 than the creation of conventional plastics. When they are derived from renewable sources like corn, potato and tapioca starches, they are a product that is not harmful to humans or animal life.”

Ms. Ellig expressed a preference for compostable products due to the grand variety of serving options available and the relatively inexpensive cost.

“Compostable products are really affordable and readily available,” she explained. “You can get boat trays, plates, soup containers, even the utensils and napkins. Compostable materials on the industrial level will take some certain industrial solutions to break them down into compost. There are certain things that need to occur… but the cost at this point is not going to be prohibitive, and we would rather look to have a sustainable goal of a true zero waste to landfill across our operations than just to continue to replicate the plastic problem.”

Ms. Ellig admitted industrial composting would need to be done on a cooperative regional level to offset the cost of constructing such a facility, and Commissioner Mike Meier worried that deciding to go with compostable materials without such a facility in place would hinder the city from achieving its goal.

“The problem is that unless we start looking at a composting facility, this will persist in the marine environment exactly the same way, this will persist on the sides of the road exactly the same way,” he said. “Depending on the manufacturer, it needs 90 to 180 days of industrial composting. The latest studies on this have shown that many of the existing industrial composting facilities out there don’t even have that long of a composting cycle. So what happens, this stuff goes in, everything gets composted, and what comes out is beautiful compost and plastic that gets raked out and thrown in the trash. If we were going to talk about a composting facility, we’re going to need to have a state-of-the-art one that would have a 90- to 180-day composing process.”

Commissioner Merritt Matheson said industrial composting would help meet the city’s goal quicker than trying to rely on recyclable plastics, many of which do not currently have a market for resale.

“If the next step is we need industrial composting, why not?” he asked. “Because we’re not solving the entire problem right now, maybe we can be making a decision where we’re considering having an industrial composting facility and working with the county and the School Board and getting to that route, which this is the first step in getting towards zero waste.”

When Commissioner Kelli Glass-Leighton asked Commissioner Meier what percentage of compostable materials remained without the longer industrial composting process, the latter said he didn’t want “to torpedo the idea” but believed the city should concentrate on its current number one and two recyclable beverage plastics and then have the vendors at city events utilize serving materials made of paperboard until access to a composting facility was available.

“It should be the paperboard stuff that will biodegrade naturally on its own, the talcum-based things,” he explained. The utensils are going to be the tricky part; we have to make sure that the utensils we recommend are the kind that don’t need the industrial composting process, the ones that are talcum-based.”

Ms. Ellig agreed to run with the commissioner’s suggestions if the rest of the Board agreed and believes they would be simple enough for the average event-goer to comply with.

“We are going to promote the compostable materials for food service, and for beverage service, we are still recommending, as Commissioner Meier said, the recyclable bottles one and two, aluminum cans and glass,” she said. “All beverages would be recyclable, and food service materials – plates, bowls, utensils, napkins – would be of the compostable side, along with the food waste. So, it’s clear when you go to dispose, beverages and containers go to one area, those are recycled, and food service plates and paper go into the other side.”

Commissioner Matheson concurred but didn’t want the city’s efforts to stop there.

“Personally I would like to attack this with the hope that our successors would consider an industrial compost [facility],” he insisted. ”Everything that I’ve done and researched said that that should be happening to get us to our goal of zero waste. We might not be doing it now, but this is just one step towards that.”

Commissioner Meier also backed the idea as long as city staff would try to get the county onboard with a regional composting facility.

“I want to go down that road, but my only issue is can we talk about how we feel about working with the county on an industrial composting facility?” he asked his fellow commissioners. “Does that sound interesting to everybody?”

“I think the question should be, do they want to work with us?” responded Commissioner Glass-Leighton.

“I don’t think we have it on the joint agenda, but it might be something to think on,” chimed in Commissioner Eula Clark, referring to an upcoming meeting between the staff and boards of Martin County, the City of Stuart and the School Board.

City Manager David Dyess insisted it would be up to the city commissioners to broach the subject.

“The county has asked in our joint meeting for each entity to update where they are with plastics, so we could include that in the conversation,” he said.

Mayor Becky Bruner emphasized it would be a good time to get an estimate on potential costs.

“That would be a good idea while we’re at that meeting to ask them and see what kind of money are we talking about,” she said.

The mayor also emphasized the need for a sufficient educational period to help people form new recycling habits.

“It’s the awareness, it’s the changing of behavior,” she insisted. “You’ll have to pull me a lot harder, but you’re going to change my behavior. That’s what it’s about, that we slowly have to change.”

Commissioners and staff also struggled with the idea of a grace period and whether an ordinance would produce any change in behavior without the threat of imposed fines or loss of privileges. They ultimately settled on a year of voluntary compliance for both the plastic straws and non-recyclable plastics on city venues begging Jan. 1, following by mandatory compliance beginning Jan. 1, 2021. Commissioner Matheson agreed the first year would be a learning process for both the city and businesses and event organizers such as the Arts Fest affected by the new ordinances.

“We just decided on a year of education, and we’re going to have to revisit this as it goes forward,” he said. “We’re going to look at Arts Fest and how it turned out, what were the violations, and we’re going to have to take a look and see. Line 8 [of the proposed ordinance] says we can refuse them their permit. That’s the strong point, is that if they keep failing so egregiously, we’re going to refuse them their permit.”

A handful of public speakers addressed the Board during the hearing, all of them supportive of the Commission’s goals for the most part. Former Sewall’s Point Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch lauded the Board for its efforts.

“I am so proud of you,” she said. “I think that this has some similarities to when we were the first on Florida’s East Coast to start the strong fertilizer ordinances of any sort, and that was hard, and it was hard for business. And we found in the Town of Sewall’s Point anyway that people made just as much money and things worked out just as well, ordinance or no ordinance. My hope is it would be the same with plastic straws.”

As far as the new plastic straw ordinance, Mr. Mortell said via email Sept. 29 that beginning Jan. 1 of next year, fast-food restaurants in Stuart can only give out plastic straws on request and cannot have them directly accessible by customers. They will only be allowed to give out plastic straws without request to drive-through customers.

“This is intended to provide adequate time for awareness of the ordinance and allow the businesses to use up any straws in their inventory,” he said. “From Sept. 1, 2021 forward, no plastic straws will be allowed anywhere. Furthermore, no straws on display or distribution without request.  So a restaurant can’t just put straws in drinks without a request, but if a customer requests, they are allowed to have paper or other non-plastic straws. Again, drive-through businesses don’t have to wait for request, but no plastic straws will be allowed.” 

Former City Commissioner Pete Walson, who also previously ran a fast-food business, doesn’t necessarily see a problem with the ban and as a former fast food operator himself believes the public will adjust.

“I want to thank you guys for bringing the plastic issue up, and I think it’s crucially important that we deal with it,” he said. “I think frankly as a franchise owner in the past that I could have lived with paper straws. They’re only a few things in the world that you can’t use them for – milkshakes is one of them – but you can drink your Diet Coke or your water.”

The Commission is slated to review the draft versions of the new ordinances sometime in October.

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