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Banning Single-Use Plastic Bans

by Rudy Sanchez on 03/18/2019 | 3 Minute Read

Several cities and municipalities have passed bans or imposed fees on plastic bags and other single-use plastic items like straws. Many of these cities are on the coast or along waterways, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston.

While California was the first to pass a statewide plastic bag law, some state governments are doing the opposite, passing laws that restrict local governments from enacting plastic bans or fees. Dubbed preemption laws, these tactics are often used to stop bans in municipalities with conservative run state-level legislatures or governors. These same laws have also been applied to minimum wage increases, LGBTQ-rights, and gun control laws.

A couple of the biggest drivers for preemptive plastic ban laws are the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), an industry lobbying group, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate and conservative lobbying firm that drafts and promotes so-called “model legislation” to state legislators.

It’s mostly corporate and conservative lobbyists persuading Republican statehouses into passing preemption laws with Republican governors signing them into effect. It appears that the GOP is using preemption laws, including “ban bans,” to “rein in” liberal cities.

The path to plastic bans becoming a partisan issue isn’t entirely clear. For many cities like Park City and Moab, UT, plastic bag bans are pragmatic solutions to local issues like litter cleanup and tourism. It's beyond the usual eco-friendly policies, as there's a direct, fiscal impact when it comes to collecting plastic bags that travel with the wind.

Bans help prevent these bags from becoming eyesores while reducing the need and cost of collecting them. But now Utah state legislators are pushing back, with a preemptive law preventing cities and counties from regulating “auxiliary containers,” HB320, just as Logan and Salt Lake City consider enacting similar bills.

There's a lot at stake for the plastic bag industry —when California passed a statewide ban, in addition to court battles, they spent over $6 million dollars to push a no vote repealing the ban when it was put to a referendum. And what did that mean plastic bag manufacturers? $100-150 million in annual sales to the Golden State, while local governments were spending $428 million in cleaning them up over the same time period.

More frightening to the plastic industry may be the way California serves as an environmental bellwether for the rest of the country. As economically important as the state is, more devastating perhaps would be for plastic bans to gain momentum nationally.

Little surprise then that preemptive plastic bans have been proposed or passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, and Missouri. And in nearly every instance the actors are the same—conservative and pro-plastic lobbies cutting local efforts at the knees through state-level preemptions.

And it’s not just limited to plastic bags. With straw rage reaching its inevitable peak, Florida lawmakers are now considering passing a 5-year ban on plastic straw bans.

While it’s disconcerting that statehouses are usurping local plastic solutions for the sake of commerce, or worse, for partisan reasons, voters have another way to effect change—by using their wallet. Large companies have either moved ahead with or pledged to reduce the amount of plastic in their operations. Starbucks is phasing out plastic straws, replaced by a compostable “sippy lids,” and non-plastic straws by 2020 in all of their 28,000 locations. Kroger, America’s largest grocer, has pledged to remove single-use plastic bags from over 2,800 company-owned stores by 2025, eliminating 6 million bags annually. Loop, a grocery delivery service featuring reusable packaging, was recently announced, with major CPG brands such as Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever signing on.

Companies are adapting to consumer priorities, including the desire for less plastic. As these firms cater to customers seeking to patronize brands committed to sustainability, the patchwork of local and state rules will matter less. Larger chains will not only have an impact in terms of the number of pieces of plastic unserved, but they will also set the customer expectation and influence competitors to follow suit. Fortunately, it seems, preemption is likely a temporary stopgap for the plastics business, and ultimately consumer preference for sustainability may prove to be the biggest driver of real, lasting change.