BY JENNIFER RICH – Times Correspondent
TREASURE ISLAND – Spurred on by a young mother’s concern over plastic’s impact on the beaches and wildlife, business people in Treasure Island and Madeira Beach are pushing a campaign aimed at attacking the issue.
The Treasure Island-Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce is embarking on a program to educate beach business owners about the harmful impact of plastic straws, bags and plastic foam containers.
The Environmental Preservation Initiative for Our Communities, in its infancy, will be a long-term program focused on promoting clean air, clean water and clean energy, said Greg Tong, a chamber board member and chair of the initiative.
The chamber has teamed up with the Suncoast Surfrider Foundation to push for voluntary reduction of plastic waste from beach bars and restaurants, he said.
‘This will mean meeting with businesses individually and doing onsite education and providing networking,’ Tong said.
The idea for the initiative came about after Treasure Island resident Julie Featherston in October started a social media campaign on Facebook after becoming angry at the vast amount of plastic straws she and her 5-yearold son, Harper, found during their daily visits to Sunset Beach.
Her photo of the straws posted on her Facebook page along with an appeal to share it drew thousands of responses.
However, Featherston’s efforts to get Treasure Island to invoke a ban on the plastics temporarily met a roadblock after commissioners decided to wait to see if businesses would voluntarily reduce their plastic use.
Beach restaurants and bars have picked up the idea and are now banding together to voluntarily switch to paper products and limit plastic straw use along with plastic bags and plastic foam containers for takeout.
‘We see this as a great opportunity through a voluntary effort to go way beyond eliminating plastic straw use,’ said Dennis Fagan, chamber president. ‘Our goal is to be the cleanest beach community in Florida.’ Thomas Paterek, chair of the Suncoast Surfrider Foundation, which promotes beach protection from Clearwater to Siesta Key, said its Rise Above Plastic effort focuses on educating the public on the effects of singleuse plastics.
The 30-year-old organization, with chapters around the world, has successfully helped communities like San Diego and Miami Beach reduce businesses’ reliance on plastics.
The group originally supported Featherston’s appeal to the city for a plastics ban butis now working with the chamber on voluntary compliance.
‘You have to shoot for the stars. You push it as far as you can, but in the end it is all about compromise,’ Paterek said.
Paterek and Kinsley McEachern, a University of South Florida master’s degree student who is working with the foundation, believe Treasure Island and Madeira Beach could set the standard for the state on how beach communities can fight to be more sustainable.
Sonny Flynn, president of the John’s Pass Village Association, which represents 89 business owners in John’s Pass, is excited about the effort.
She predicts there will be 75 percent compliance from association members once the program gets under way.
‘I’ve received nothing but positive feedback so far,’ Flynn said.
Tong said tackling plastic use is just the first step and expects the chamber will be working with other organizations to further promote green living with better recycling, liquid waste disposal and more energy efficient use of electricity and turtle-friendly lighting.
‘We’ve already got some movement from people who we haven’t even have asked to participate,’ Tong said.
Jeremy Runo, owner of Daiquiri Shak Raw Bar & Grille in Madeira Beach, is already asking employees to not automatically serve drinks with straws.
‘You’d be surprised that if drinks aren’t served with a straw, people don’t notice it,’ he said. If requested, the restaurant will offer paper straws.
He expects the added cost of some paper products will be offset by the reduced number being used.
‘If it is more costly, it’s saving the environment so it’s worth it,’ he said.