For years, environmental groups have been pushing laws to limit the use of plastic bags, which they say are wasteful, harm wildlife and linger as litter for centuries.
Major cities have joined the effort in the past decade. Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Boulder require stores to charge fees for plastic bags; San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago and Seattle have banned the disposable bags outright.
This year, though, the cause has suffered major setbacks. As it turns out, the plastic bag lobby — and one does exist — is anything but flimsy.
Last year, California became the first state to pass a statewide ban on plastic bags in stores. But the law, which was set to go in effect for supermarkets in July, has been put on hold after the American Progressive Bag Alliance submitted a petition with over 800,000 names. Last week, California officials announced that voters would have to ratify the law in a referendum on the 2016 ballot.
“This is a cynical ploy by out-of-state interests desperate to delay a ban already adopted in more than 100 communities across California,” a spokesperson for Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told the Associated Press.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which is supported by major plastics manufacturers, spent over $3 million on consultants and a petition management company between October and December, when it was collecting signatures. The group told the San Francisco Chronicle that plastic bags, like those handed out by restaurants and stores, are a $100 million- to $150 million-a-year business in California. That’s well worth the $3 million investment, Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross noted.
In Georgia, bag makers and retailers are going on the offensive. Last week, the Georgia Senate passed a sweeping bill that would protect the freedom of plastic bags and disposable foods everywhere. It’s a ban-ban bill, that special kind of legislation that would handcuff city and county governments from making their own local restrictions on the issue.
SB 139, which passed 32-19 Thursday, wouldn’t just outlaw local bans on plastic bags. It would bar cities from regulating “auxiliary containers” at all, which include bags, takeout containers and throwaway cups. They could not tax these products; they could not impose fees; they could not tell people how to use them. Only the state would be able to pass laws regulating these objects.
The bill is intended to help businesses. “Prudent regulation of auxiliary containers is crucial to the welfare of Georgia’s,” the bill explains. “Retail and food establishments are sensitive to the costs and regulation of auxiliary containers.”
Sen. Tyler Harper (R) sponsored the bill in reaction to the “regulatory mayhem” surrounding plastic bags in California, he told a local news service last week. It’s important, he said, that “our businesses in our state have some sense of certainty in regards to regulation in our state.”
In California, where many cities have individual rules about plastic bags, many grocery store owners supported the statewide ban. Having the bags outlawed everywhere makes things simpler, the president of the California Grocers Association told the L.A. Times.
Harper’s bill is advancing to the Georgia house just as the coastal city of Tybee Island prepares to consider an ordinance banning plastic bags. Locals there worry about the impact of plastic litter on the environment and tourism. For these same reasons, North Carolina banned plastic shopping bags on the Outer Banks five years ago.
“Our economy is based on a beachfront community,” said Bill Garbett, who sits on the Tybee Island council. “We have sea turtles nesting on the beach. They easily confuse plastic bags with jellyfish. It’s up close and personal to us.”
The issue is more than just an environmental one. Garbett said SB 139 has raised concerns in many of Georgia’s cities because it represents the state government meddling in local affairs. “That the legislature would come in and prohibit something as silly as bag bans also means they would control a lot of other issues,” he said.
Clarke County, which includes the city of Athens, Ga., has also talked about banning plastic bags, though nothing has materialized so far. Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson said she’s lukewarm on bag bans; she’s worked for years in waste management for the county and doesn’t believe that this is the right way to go about reducing plastic trash. But she also opposes SB 139.
She’s not a fan of the state government telling cities what they can or can’t do, and this bill is especially broad. “My concern is if this bill goes forward, it will take away our opportunity to do anything locally,” she said. “It would actually preempt some of our other initiatives downtown.”
Dickerson said that Athens representatives will soon meet with state lawmakers to discuss the bill. “We’ll see if we can’t get them to back off some on this legislation,” she said.
Correction: The Outer Banks are in North Carolina, not South Carolina.