Miami Beach gets to stay Styrofoam free — but the rest of the state is screwed

Miami Beach restaurant owner Steve Santana stopped at his local Publix recently to pick up a few Styrofoam coolers for a catering job. When he got there, the coolers were nowhere to be found.

That’s because two years ago, Miami Beach became the first city in all of Florida to enact a ban on Styrofoam on city property. Last year, that ban was expanded to prohibit the sale of the plastic anywhere in Miami Beach. (Santana simply used a paper bag instead.)

We wrote about the forward-thinking measures as an example of how individual cities might be leading the way on environmental issues like climate change. But it seems like Miami Beach and a handful of other municipalities who followed suit might be the first and last in Florida.

On March 16, Gov. Rick Scott signed a routine food safety bill into law — complete with a not-so-routine amendment that would put the brakes on any other local bans on Styrofoam.

The amendment was filed by Rep. Jake Raburn, a Republican from the Tampa-area, with support from the Retail Food Federation, a lobbying organization that works on behalf of its some 270,000 businesses around Florida.

Among the most prominent members of the group – and supporters of the amendment? Our beloved Publix.

Publix was very active in it. It’s one of the major employers in the State of Florida that relies on polystyrene,” said James Miller, communications director for the Retail Food Federation.

In an e-mail from Nicole Krauss, division media and community relations manager for Publix Supermarkets, the company confirmed that it supported the legislation that now gives “the state the authority to regulate the sale and use of polystyrene products by food service establishments like grocery stores and restaurants.”

Polystyrene is a plastic material used in food packaging, usually as a polystyrene foam, known commonly as Styrofoam. Styrofoam is particularly detrimental to coastal communities because it breaks down into small, virtually undetectable beads that scatter throughout the oceans. It’s pretty impossible to clean up.

Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Hollywood, and Key Biscayne all passed bans before Jan. 1, 2016, which means they get to keep them in place. And keeping this clause was also a fight, according to Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco.

But in places like Coral Gables and Orlando — which were either in the process of passing a ban or passed a ban in 2016 — the prohibitions will be reversed.

“At one point [the ban] passed the House without the grandfathering clause […] they had to suspend the rules and go back and reinsert it, then approve the amendment with the grandfathering clause,” Grieco said (grandfathering is a term that basically means laws already in existence are exempt). “That doesn’t seem like a big deal to a bunch of lobbyists in Tallahassee. They’re making all efforts to undermine what we were trying to do down here to protect our waterways. I found that offensive.”

The Styrofoam ban is an example from the just-finished legislative session of the tricky balance of power between state and local governments.

The Florida constitution enshrines a concept called home rule, which reserves powers for local governments, allowing them to enact ordinances and resolutions without seeking approval from Tallahassee. But the state legislature has the ability to overrule local laws with legislation – something called preemption.

Home rule can be a good thing or a bad thing on environmental issues. When it comes to something like emissions standards, you’re going to have to set regulations at the state-level. But this session several South Florida legislators rallied against an attempt in Tallahassee to overrule local bans on fracking, arguing that the ecosystem here is far more fragile than that of other parts of the state. And when you’ve got some local governments way out ahead of the other parts of the state on something like, say, plastic waste, home rule becomes something that allows them to lead by example.