Surfside Bans Plastic Straws as Activists Take Aim at Miami Beach

Sea turtle advocate Jennifer Rotker often walks the beach near her home in Surfside to pick up trash. Finding water bottles, soda caps, and abandoned cups are a regular occurrence, but one item that bugs her most is the plastic straw.

"The hotel concessions have littered the beach with massive amounts of plastic straws," Rotker says. "It has a horrible impact on our marine wildlife and the health of our waterways."

So earlier this year, Rotker began going to meetings of the city's sustainability committee and eventually persuaded her local leaders to draft an ordinance banning plastic straws. The town commission unanimously passed the ban in March.

"It's making the hotels and concessionaires responsible for the trash that they're putting on the beach," Rotker says. "The beach is public property, so if they're granted these permits, they should be held responsible to maintain its cleanliness and the safety of marine life and people visiting."

Environmentally conscious cities have been enacting bans on plastic straw since a viral video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose began circulating in 2015. Last year, a short documentary about the hazards of plastic straws won several awards on the indie film circuit, and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have written about the war on single-use straws. According to credible estimates, Americans use as many as 175 million plastic straws per day.

Volunteers pick up plastic straws and other litter at a beach cleanup in Surfside.EXPAND
Volunteers pick up plastic straws and other litter at a beach cleanup in Surfside.
Courtesy of Jennifer Rotker

Though some critics argue that plastic straws are hardly the worst culprits of plastic pollution, Florida's restrictive state laws make it difficult for local municipalities to ban far worse offenders, such as plastic bags. In 2010, state lawmakers made it illegal for cities to regulate plastic bags, a rule being challenged in court by the City of Coral Gables.

So far, Surfside is one of only a handful of Florida cities, including Fort Myers Beach and St. Petersburg, to have banned plastic straws. Miami Beach enacted a partial ban in 2012 to stop vendors from giving straws to people on the beach, although the ordinance doesn't apply to the rest of the city.

After victory in her own town, Rotker hopes to persuade Miami Beach to pass tighter restrictions.

"A huge part of this is educating businesses and educating the public," she says. "It's just about being conscious and doing what's right."

Just since March, Rotker says, there's already a noticeable difference as she strolls the beach in Surfside.

"It's night and day," she says. "You used to walk three feet and find dozens and dozens of plastic straws, but now you don't, because they're not there."

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