Ban on plastic bag regulations shows local control isn’t what it used to be

It may be tempting to shrug off the Michigan Senate’s bill banning local regulation of plastic bags as just another example of Republicans’ business-first agenda. But this one is particularly egregious in that it directly contradicts one of the Legislature’s chief responsibilities outlined in the state Constitution.

The Senate voted May 10 to prohibit local communities from regulating single-use plastic shopping bags, which have become a major source of pollution to our rivers, natural areas, and cities and neighborhoods.

No communities have yet passed such ordinances, but Washtenaw County has been working toward that end with a proposal for a $.10 cent fee on most plastic and paper bags used by retailers, with some exceptions.

The county has determined that plastic bags not only litter precious natural resources, they also cost the county more than $200,000 per year in damage to recycling machinery. It is that problem, in particular, which the county has jurisdiction to address.

But in a mostly party-line vote, the Senate preemptively quashed local control on the issue. The bill now heads to the House, where one would expect it to sail through in similar fashion.

When state lawmakers override local control, it should be in pursuit of a better solution, or a more noble ideal. Unfortunately, there has been an alarming, undemocratic trend across the country in recent years of Republican-controlled legislatures overriding progressive local measures simply to benefit their industry donors, not the common good.

In Michigan, our state legislators have already removed local control on a bevy of issues ranging from prevailing wage ordinances to paid sick day guarantees.

On this issue, however, senators stand in direct contradiction with their constitutional mandate to “provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.”

In passing their preemptive bill, senators cited concern for their industry donors while offering no alternatives for curbing the use of environmentally destructive plastic bags.

Sen. Mike Kowall, Republican from White Lake, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press worrying about the effect on businesses. “The last thing you want is having these things blowing into Great Lakes. But a patchwork is not the way to fix the problem.”

If Kowell is truly concerned about pollution and consistency, the solution would be a statewide ban on plastic bags. But somehow, I doubt he is busily drafting such a bill.

Similarly, Walker mayor Mark Huizenga, quoted in MLive, fretted to the Senate committee that a local ordinance would harm retailers. "If we were to create an ordinance … I can imagine the burden that retailers would have as both Meijer and Target conduct business in our neighboring city of Grandville."

No need to tax one’s imagination. Simply look to California, where for years a patchwork of local ordinances regulating plastic bags has existed. Target figured it out. The economy didn’t implode.

The notion that Target, or any business, would relocate due to a bag ordinance is a straw man fallacy designed to scare people. It simply hasn’t happened in any other place that has enacted such ordinances. San Jose enacted an ordinance in 2012. There are currently 11 Target locations in the city.

Further, studies show bag bans do not harm the economy in the long-term.

The other fallacy comes from Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers spokesman Dan Papineau – representing gas stations and convenience stores -- who claims plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than reusable ones. Studies show this to be false – LDPE and HDPE bags need only be reused four times to have a lower environmental impact than plastic.

What’s more, not only have such ordinances not harmed the economy, they have proven to be effective in reducing waste and pollution.

According to a report from San Jose's Transportation and Environment Committee, the ordinance reduced bag litter in "approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods."

Results like that should be the goal of our legislators, in fealty to the constitution’s mandate that they remember conservation and development of the state’s natural resources are of “paramount public concern.”

Helping retailers avoid a patchwork of rules? Curiously, that is nowhere in the document to be found.

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