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Trash-talking Florida legislators push a pro-litter bill

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A Pinellas County student holds up a plastic bag she found during a recent coastal cleanup. Photo by Environment FloridaQuality Journalism for Critical Times

Have you ever picked up trash from a beach, a park, or a roadside? I have. And before you ask, no it was NOT because a judge sentenced me to community service.

I think every Floridian should do a little litter cleanup, if only because it would make everyone less likely to litter again. Plus, when you pick up trash in Florida, you are liable to find some treasure. Last month, some kids visiting from Missouri were cleaning debris from the mangroves on Big Pine Key when they stumbled on a kilo of cocaine.

On the days I was picking up garbage I didn’t find anything like that. I did see a lot of plastic – more plastic than was on view in the “Barbie” movie, in fact. There were discarded plastic bags, plastic bottles, and cigarette butts, which are plastic too.

Apparently, we have some lawmakers who are okay with plastic trash — in fact, they’d like to see more.

I say that because there are a couple of bills making their way through the current session that seem to be pro-littering. They would ban local governments and state agencies from imposing regulations against single-use plastic items like bags, bottles, even Styrofoam.

What’s worse is that, if passed, these two bills would repeal the existing anti-plastic rules that are already on the books.

The two bills, SB 1126 and HB 1641, “would be retroactive, so rules already in place in about 20 municipalities across the state would be affected,” WUSF-FM reported last week. By “affected,” they mean “completely wiped out.”

Instead, the only entity allowed to impose any rules on plastic trash would be the Florida Department of Environmental Degradation — er, excuse me, “Protection” — which has no such rules. Bear in mind that this is the agency that’s been doing such a terrific job of cleaning up water pollution around the state that Florida’s now No. 1 in the nation for polluted lakes.

Mia McCormick via Environment Florida

This is in spite of the fact that a 2021 survey by the DEP found that more than 90 percent of Florida residents and local governments “felt that single-use plastics need to be regulated,” said Mia McCormick of Environment Florida.

There’s a lot of competition in this legislative session for the Stupidest Bill of the Year, what with the one attacking Pride flags and another to protect monuments to the Traitors of 1861. Still, I think these pro-litter bills must rank somewhere in the top five.

“Who benefits from this bill?” McCormick said. “The only people I can come up with is the billion-dollar plastics industry.”

Why would anyone even file such an awful bill? According to the House sponsor, state Rep.  Brad Yeager, R-Mount Trashmore, he filed it because “I think we need to protect small business and this does that.”

Actually, widespread littering is really bad for Florida’s businesses. Florida Springs Council executive director Ryan Smart predicts that if the bills pass, it will be a huge blow to the state’s tourism industry.

“No one’s going to go to a spring that’s full of trash,” said Smart. “No one’s going to go to a beach that’s full of trash.”

And if you don’t believe him, just ask his friend the mermaid.

Guardian of the Waters

In addition to citrus, space exploration and tacky souvenirs, one of Florida’s most distinctive industries is the mermaid industry. We’ve got oodles of mermaids all over the state, from the Panhandle to the Keys. (I would say “schools of mermaids,” but that seems disrespectful.)

The mermaid in this particular case is Michelle Colson, aka “Mermaid Michi,” a professional mermaid-for-hire from Ocala. She styles herself as “Guardian of the Waters” and “Guardian of the Springs.”

This week Colson put up a joint Instagram post with the Florida Springs Council condemning the two bills. The photo showed her in costume, holding a plastic bottle and looking dismayed. In the caption, she urged her 39,000 followers to contact their legislators to object.

“This bill could jeopardize the clean waters of iconic state parks like Ichetucknee, Weeki Wachee, Rainbow, and Silver,” she wrote.

I interviewed Colson, who fortunately was not underwater at the time I called. Otherwise, she might’ve had a hard time hearing my questions.

Professional mermaid Michelle Colson, aka “Mermaid Michi,” holds a plastic bottle. She warns that if the bills pass, the state’s waterways won’t be protected from single-use plastic items. Photo courtesy of Michelle Colson

She’s been working as a mermaid for eight years, she said. She’s definitely a fan of clean waterways. After all, that’s where she swims.

“I do a lot of cleanups,” she told me. “It’s insane the amount of trash you can pull out of rivers that don’t have regulations, compared to the ones that do.”

Along the Rainbow River, for instance, there are rules against single-use plastic that were imposed by Rainbow Springs State Park as well as the local governments. They’re effective, she said.

“When we do cleanups there, I sometimes come back with nothing,” she said.

By contrast, there are no rules about plastic use on the Santa Fe River, she said, “and I can pick up buckets and buckets and buckets of the stuff there.”

If lawmakers pass those bills, she predicted, the fairly pristine Rainbow will become more like the litter-ridden Santa Fe.

I guess our legislators don’t want to hear about that. In fact, they’ve been acting for years like they’re the ones that are submerged and can’t hear anything.

The disappearing report

What’s really amazing to me is how long this trash-talking has been going on.

Sixteen years ago, in 2008, the Legislature told the DEP to help them create new rules for plastic trash. The lawmakers wanted the DEP to analyze “the need for new or different regulation of auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags used by consumers to carry products from retail establishments.”

The law they passed said any counties or cities that hadn’t already instituted their own regulations couldn’t create any new ones until the Legislature adopted the DEP’s recommendations.

The law had a loophole that allowed cities and counties to impose anti-litter regulations on their own property — in municipal parks and public beaches, for instance, as well as government buildings, McCormick told me. But they were not allowed to extend those rules to the rest of the city or county.

In 2010, the DEP produced its report. It offered recommendations that were far from draconian. One recommended beefing up consumer education about the perils of plastic. Another talked of setting plastic recycling goals. A third proposed requiring bags that are better for the environment be offered at checkout as an alternative to plastic.

The report’s toughest option called for creating a plastic consumption reduction plan. If its goals went unmet, then and only then would the state institute a ban or set stiff fees.

The Legislature ignored the entire thing. It was as if the report itself went straight into the trash. As a result, there’d be no state rules — but also the ban on new local government rules stayed in place.

Eleven years and tons of trash later, in 2021, the DEP produced a new report. The update noted that in the interim, scientists had done more studies showing the dangers of plastic waste to both wildlife and human health. Consumers, too, were more aware of the issue.

Once again, the report offered a page full of recommendations. Once again, the Legislature ignored it, leaving the cities and counties hamstrung.

Ryan Smart via Linkedin

“You’d think the Legislature goes to Tallahassee to solve problems, but clearly they’re more interested in creating a problem,” Smart said.

And now, if these bills pass the way they’re written, the DEP will be instructed to never again produce another report like they did in 2010 and 2021. The bills call for “removing obsolete provisions” requiring the DEP to update its report.

You can understand why, can’t you?  It’s too embarrassing for our do-nothing legislators to keep being reminded of what they could have done for their constituents.

By the way, I’d like to tell you where you could read that 2021 DEP report for yourself, but I can’t. It’s not where the public can find it anymore.

“The study was posted on the DEP website,” Smart told me. “But then the study disappeared last week.”

Shooting numbers into the wind

Most of the rest of the nation has figured out the way to cut plastic trash is to clamp down on its use. For instance, 31 states have put limits of some kind on plastic bags. Florida is one of 19 states that refused to take that step.

Who’s opposed to cleaning up all the plastic harming Florida’s environment? The Florida Retail Federation, for one, although I am sure there are individual store owners who disagree with the federation’s stance. They should let the organization’s leaders know.

Another is the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. I was disappointed to learn that their mascot is NOT the dancing bag from “American Beauty” that one character describes as “the most beautiful thing I ever filmed.” Seems like a missed opportunity to me.

State Rep. Bradford Troy “Brad” Yeager. Credit: state House website.

I watched a House committee question Rep. Yeager, a former Pasco County car salesman turned boat salesman, about his bill. You could tell that several of them were uncomfortable with it. Even Yeager didn’t seem too clear on the details, at one point confessing, “I’d just be shooting numbers into the wind.”

After listening to all the testimony on the bill, Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Boca Raton Democrat, told Yeager, “I don’t know what this bill fixes. I don’t know how this bill helps us.”

Then the apparently confused Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican from St. Pete Beach, said, “I see it as helping the environment, helping tourism and the restaurants and hotels.” Listening to her, I made a note to never ask her for directions anywhere because she’s bound to send me in the opposite direction.

In the end, Yeager’s bill passed by a split vote of 11 to 7. It still has two more committee hearings for someone to stop it before it reaches the House floor.

The Senate version is sponsored by a Republican lawyer from Fort Myers named Jonathan Martin, who’s also the sponsor of that dopey “Save the Monuments Honoring Treasonous Racists” bill.

State Sen. Jonathan Martin. Credit: Florida Senate.

His pro-litter bill was set for a committee vote this week, but at the last minute he pulled it from the agenda. Smart was there, and he told me that happened because Martin didn’t have enough votes to pass it. That was the committee’s last scheduled meeting.

I am hopeful that that means that bill is headed for the Tallahassee landfill and drags down its House companion too. But I won’t hold my breath. Bad ideas that seemed doomed have been revived by the Legislature more times than Hollywood has brought back Dracula.

We as a nation have been concerned about littering since an Italian actor who called himself Iron Eyes Cody famously cried on camera in a 1970 “Keep America Beautiful” ad.

But 54 years down this trash-strewn road, we’re still coming to terms with what our own role is in keeping our country beautiful. We want a pristine landscape, but we also want everything we buy to be convenient and inexpensive. Then, when we’re done, we want to be able to just throw it out and not contemplate the consequences.

If these wrong-headed bills pass, we will have to redouble our efforts at cleaning up the resulting increase in litter. Instead of recycling all that plastic or sending it to a landfill or an incinerator, though, I have a better idea.

I say we send it all to the two bill sponsors. They love that stuff so much, let them deal with its proliferation. Yeager’s office is at Suite 200, 5509 Grand Boulevard, New Port Richey, FL 34652-3836, and Martin’s district office address is Suite 401, 2000 Main Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901.

I don’t want to say something derogatory about these pro-pollution politicians and run afoul of the state’s new, looser standard for defamation. So let me just say that I am confident that if you send them all your trash, these guys will know right where to stick it.

The post Trash-talking Florida legislators push a pro-litter bill appeared first on Florida Phoenix.

Commentary, Environment, Politics & Law, clean waterways, DEP recommendations, Environment Florida, Florida Springs Council, litter cleanup, Mia McCormick, plastic bags, Ryan Smart, single use plastic items

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