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Should Plastic Bags Be Banned? State and Local Officials Have Different Answers

| February 11, 2018

plastic bags bans

Raising the bag flag. (shlomp-a-plompa/Flickr)

Bisbee, a city of 5,200 tucked into the mountains of southeastern Arizona, has been a haven for artists and left-leaning types since the 1970s. The old mining town has art galleries, live music venues, and stories — many of them revolving around the supposedly haunted Copper Queen Hotel — in abundance.


Until a few years ago, Bisbee also had plenty of something it didn’t want: plastic bags. They sullied the streets, helicoptered through the air and draped the cactuses, according to Mayor David M. Smith. The problem grew so dire that in 2012, the town barred retailers from providing plastic bags to customers.

Some local businesses opposed the ban, but most residents were thrilled, according to Smith. “It made a huge difference,” said the mayor, who voted for the ordinance as a member of the city council. “After, they were all gone.”

But that was just the beginning of Bisbee’s bag battle. The Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, which represents the state’s grocers and food suppliers, lobbied the Legislature for legislation that would quash Bisbee’s ban and prevent other cities and towns in Arizona from following its lead. In 2015, they succeeded.

Republican lawmakers typically tout the benefits of local control. But in states across the country, they have taken action to rein in cities that want to enact progressive measures such as gun control laws and minimum wage hikes. Now plastic bags have become an unlikely flashpoint in the conflict between blue cities and their red state legislatures.

In recent years a handful of states — Arizona and Missouri in 2015, Idaho, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, Minnesota in 2017 — have enacted “bans on bans,” joining a group that already included Florida, Indiana and Iowa. The Florida ban is in question, however, since a judge ruled such bans unconstitutional. 

State Sen. Warren Petersen, the Republican who led the push for Arizona’s law, said it is intended to protect individual rights. In addition to prohibiting plastic bag bans, the measure prohibits local governments from regulating the use of boxes, bottles and containers “used for transporting merchandise to or from a business.”

“It’s not the government’s job to tell you whether or not you should use a plastic bag,” Petersen said. “Are we going to micromanage every decision of every consumer?”

In Florida, Coral Gables last May became the first city in the state to ban the use of single-use plastic bags by retailers. That doesn’t mean consumers are banned from using them, should they bring them in to haul out merchandise, only that retailers may not bag merchandise in bags they themselves would provide. Violators may be fined from $50 for a first violation to $500 for a third violation. Several exceptions apply, so consumer may still be provided plastic bags at pharmacies and dry cleaning establishments, for example, and the ban does not apply to trash bags or newspaper bags. Coral Gables had previously passed a ban on styrofoam and won a lawsuit challenging the ban. That ruling appeared to invalidate a state ban on bans. 

But Coral Gables’s ban prompted some legislators, including Paul Renner, the Palm Coast Republican, to question whether cities should have the authority to pass such ordinances, setting up yet another point of contention between state pre-emption of local rules and home rule. 

The issue also has attracted national players. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, an offshoot of the Plastics Industry Association, has spent millions of dollars to defeat the local bans and support legislation that preempts local governments from implementing them. And the American City County Exchange, an offshoot of the conservative advocacy group the American Legislative Exchange Council — better known as ALEC — has drafted model legislative language for prohibitions on bag bans.

“A patchwork of bag laws is never good for the consumer and never good for businesses,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance. “It should be done at the state level if it’s that important of an issue.”

In Arizona, Bisbee refused to repeal its bag ban — until last fall, when the threat of losing nearly $2 million in state aid finally forced it to relent.

“The state was basically extorting us, saying that we either had to repeal this ordinance or lose our state sharing revenues,” Smith said. “That would have literally bankrupted the city.”

San Francisco Leads the Way

San Francisco in 2007 became the first city in the United States to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags. Roughly 150 municipalities in California, including San Jose, Malibu and Santa Monica, eventually followed suit.

After a series of battles in the lower state courts, the California Supreme Court in 2011 upheld the rights of cities to ban single-use plastic bags and ruled they did not have to complete an environmental impact analysis before adopting such bans.

stateline logo analysis
Buoyed by victory, supporters pushed for a statewide ban, which Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2014.

But bag proponents weren’t through. In the last three months of 2014, the Progressive Bag Alliance spent over $3 million to collect enough signatures to put a reversal of the ban on the 2016 ballot. (Hilex Poly, a leading plastic bag manufacturer, contributed $1.7 million, Superbag Corporation gave $500,000, and Formosa Plastics contributed $400,000 in the successful effort.)

Then, to attract voter support for the ballot measure, the alliance spent another $2.6 million.

Still, Californians upheld the statewide ban, with 53 percent voting in favor. The ban allows stores to offer paper or reusable plastic bags for a 10 cent minimum fee, and certain businesses — like restaurants and department stores — are exempt.

Environmentalists say discarded plastic bags, in addition to being unsightly, are often eaten by animals such as fish and eventually end up in human food, which can make people sick. Citing data collected by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency, environmentalists say bag bans can go a long way toward minimizing those risks. Plastics are also contributing colossal tonnage to ocean pollution.

In 2010, volunteers picked up about 65,000 plastic bags littered along state beaches and rivers during the Coastal Commission’s annual cleanup day. Plastic bags accounted for 7.4 percent of all the items of trash collected throughout the day — the third most common item after cigarette butts and food wrappers.

In 2016, according to the commission, the number of littered plastic bags collected dropped by 63 percent compared to 2010. Plastic bags accounted for only 3.4 percent of the items picked up during the cleanup. In 2017, the number of plastic bags collected continued to drop, down to 3.1 percent of items picked up.

“This is a big win for the coast of California and the state in general,” said Mark Vargas, a commissioner on the Coastal Commission. “And it is proof that [these bans] work.”

Paper or Plastic?

But opponents of plastic bag bans maintain that they do little to protect the environment — and may even harm humans.

Minnesota state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican who successfully pushed a measure prohibiting local bag bans in his state, pointed out that single-use plastic bags can be reused or recycled at many grocery stores. He also argued that single-use plastic bags are more sanitary than reusable bags, and that manufacturing single-use plastic bags creates a smaller carbon footprint than the production of single-use paper bags.

Other bag-ban opponents argue that reusable bags pose sanitary risks. Many cite a 2013 study that found that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. The researchers found that emergency room admissions related to these bacteria spiked in San Francisco after it adopted its ban in 2007.

In Minnesota, state lawmakers acted quickly to preempt a bag ban that Minneapolis approved in spring 2016. Days before the city’s ban was slated to go into effect, state lawmakers in 2017 enacted a statewide prohibition on cities imposing bans on any type of bag in stores.

In 2016, the Progressive Bag Alliance spent $20,000 on lobbying at the state level in Minnesota, and the American Chemistry Council — an organization that helped foundthe Progressive Bag Alliance — spent $270,000.

City councilman Cam Gordon, a member of the Green Party who introduced the Minneapolis ordinance, said he and other proponents of the measure met with business groups and adjusted the ban to address retailers’ concerns. He said state lawmakers were trampling on the will of the City Council and residents of Minneapolis.

“I felt disrespected by the Legislature,” Gordon said. “It was not very good democracy.”

–Scott Rodd, Stateline, and FlaglerLive

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25 Responses for “Should Plastic Bags Be Banned? State and Local Officials Have Different Answers”

  1. Trailer Bob says:

    I wish there were a ban on plastic bags also. I am sick of going to the dollar general store and having the cashier put my one item in a freaking bag. We need to stop being robots and use our brains. It is like me putting a hammer in a bag while I transport it to my garage…

  2. Concerned Citizen says:

    Plastic and Styrofoam are 2 of the most nuisance items found in our environment. While both are convenient I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off without them. If you’ve ever been around the lakes near Walmart at Cypress point that’s where a lot of gray Walmart bags end up. And they stay until picked up.

    Another sore point in this article for me is discarded food wrappers. I drive thru the stretch of road daily that passes Taco Bell and Auto Zone. The amount of liter there is appalling.

    I can’t understand what even justifies the fact that you have to throw your trash out your window. It can wait till you get home and get near a garbage can. And what of this attitude of well someone else will pick it up?

    Bans and laws are great and all. Where we really start to make a difference is with ourselves. Personal accountability can reverse a lot of these issues that we are causing ourselves.

  3. Sara Crewe says:

    Yes plastic bags should totally banned

  4. Dave says:

    Of course plastic bags shiuld be banned ,at the least ot should be a $.10 charge for bags at the store or you being your own, thisnis something all can agree on

  5. Richard says:

    Ban the bags! They are a nuisance to the environment, wildlife and sometimes even useless when the bag rips open dumping the contents on the ground. The only way to prevent that is to use double or triple the bag which then compounds the hazards. In regards to litter, has there ever been anyone that you have seen litter actually been arrested and fined? It’s called consequences for your actions. All I see from those Do Not Litter signs is a threat with very little if any consequences.

  6. cburgandrafting@Yahoo.com says:

    Any one remember the old commercial with the indian looking at the litter all around with a tear in his eye. (1970 something) Powerful commercial with a awesome message. They should bring that back for the people today. Been 40 years or so and i remember it, and do not litter to this day.

  7. Linze says:

    Smokers carry a pack of cigarettes in their pocket till it’s empty and throw it. Out.
    Too many don’t care

  8. Mark says:

    What has happened to all those reuseable bags everybody bought?

  9. John dolan says:

    Ban anything not biodigradible. Cradle to grave standards.

  10. smarterthanmost says:

    It’s not the bag’s fault, people are pigs.

  11. Really says:

    The Isrealis make a plastic bag that is biodegradable lets go with that

  12. Chris A Pickett says:

    What Palm Coast needs is for people to QUIT throwing their trash out the window of their cars. If you are so “important” or in a hurry that you have to eat while driving, at least throw your garbage away at home. It seems in the last couple years we have had an explosion of people throwing litter. Neighborhoods are getting trashy all over. And the bulk of it is Fast Food wrappers, coffee cups and fountain drink cups. If you are one of these people, you should be ashamed of yourself, and if you do that here because they did it where you moved here from, perhaps the cleanliness of Palm Coast is what brought you here. We have these round and square bins located in a lots of different places, they are called TRASH BINS!

  13. Edman says:

    Ban the bags!; they are not worth the environmental cost. If we don’t and decide instead to charge for their use to cut down on the problem any of that money must be dedicated to environmental clean-up efforts. While we are at it, let’s also ban, or greatly reduce, other single use plastic items like straws, utensils, take out/home containers, etc.

  14. r&r says:

    If banned your newspaper will arrive pretty soggy.

  15. Paul says:

    Thank you Flagler Live for shedding some light on this important issue…does it make any “sense” that we are now producing tons and tons of one use plastic items (plastic utensils, cups, grocery bags, wrapping, etc.) only to be disposed of and thrown into the waste stream and the environment in which we live after that one use. And this with a product that is the end result of the exploitation/use of an ultimately limited and precious natural resource that is by a toxic industrial process made into items that last indefinitely but are used once to be thrown away which at the same time adversely affects the very environment in which we and the rest of the natural world are trying to live. Maddening to say the least. I am thinking that common sense is not so common these days. Thank you also to those above responding favorably. It is heartening to know others are similarly concerned. Also kudos to Dunkin Donuts who have announced plans to eventually stop their use of a BILLION Styrofoam cups a year. I can almost hear a huge sigh of relief just with that bit of good news.

    And I would like to add to the above, maybe while we are at it (that is stopping the pollution of the very environment in which we live) we could also learn to stop killing each other to resolve conflicts of human and common interest. Maybe we could even learn to love each other. Is that not the main lesson of Faith.

  16. John Kay says:

    Here is an idea, we should start using paper bags! They are made from byproducts of trees when they are cut down for other uses, and are biodegradable/recyclable. Why did we ever use these plastic bags in the first place, I’d think the friggin environmentalists would have gone ape shift over that decision. Guess they were asleep at the wheel, or couldn’t think ahead. Hope they aren’t the same ones working on climate change.

  17. Exit 82 says:

    It seems like losing cold,hard cash is the only way to get some people’s attention. Make the 1st offence a $500 fine and 25 hrs community service. That would give law enforcement a greater incentive to catch offenders and it would hit the SLOBS where it hurts. The second time, the penalty should include heavy fines and public shaming.

  18. woodchuck says:

    ASAP!!

  19. TeddyBallGame says:

    Simple solution: Have all retailors charge a 10 cent deposit on plastic bags and mandate they also redeam deposit $ when returned. Very soon they will be a thing of the past. This can easily be done at the county level.

  20. Bite the Bag says:

    You really want this problem solved by debates and lawyers? You really gonna make this a devisive red/blue issue. As a gun totin’, Trump votin’ intel-ectual I think the plastic bag issue could unify the city, the county and the state.

    Plastic bags suck. I have more confidence in my 70 year old bladder than I do than a plastic bag. They print shit on them that I never read. I hate the feel of them. I hate those plastic bags for vegetables they provide too. They kill.

    Having said that I am more than willing to join up with any and all screaming liberals to take the issue straight to the merchants and circumvent legislation.

    I don’t know much about organizing but I bet some of you do. We don’t need laws we just need to change the way people think. I am serious about this. If interested please chime in. We can get those damn bags out of Flagler County.

    Password

  21. Pogo says:

    @John Kay

    See page 3

    conference record of 2016 annual pulp, paper and forest … – IEEE Xplore
    http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=7523455

    Just a coincidence?

  22. snapperhead says:

    So what about all the plastic bags that go in the plastic bags? Fruits, vegetables,bread, frozen meat, snacks, candy etc etc that all come in plastic bags/wrappers. Going to ban those as well? Those make up far more plastic litter than the bag you carry it out of the store in.

  23. MS Auggie says:

    GOD YES!!! BAN THEM, !!!!
    IF YOU ARE TOO LAZY TO REQUIRE HANDLES, LET ME KNOW, I WILL SEND YOU SOME REUSABLE SHOPPING BAGS!
    I HAVE 15, AND I HAVE YET TO BUY ONE~
    WE HAVE A SEA- OF PLASTIC SOUP, THE SIZE OF TEXAS, FLOATING IN OUR OCEAN, IN WHICH, NO LIFE FORMS CAN SUPPORT.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    USE PAPER-
    IT DISINTEGRATES & BIRDS, TURTLES,DOLPHIN AND OTHER SEA DEPENDENT LIFE CANNOT – EAT IT!!!
    THERE IS NO ARGUMENT -FOR PLASTIC, CHINESE MADE, SHOPPING BAGS, EXCEPT, LAZINESS.

  24. smarterthanmost says:

    It’s Trump’s fault, it’s the bag’s fault, it’s everyone else’s fault, but not my fault.

  25. Ezekiel says:

    Plastic bags should be banned because the pollution boiz the pollution nobody likes wikipedia and animals will die if this continues

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