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State Ban on Plastic Bag Regulations is Part of a National Trend


Last month, Michigan’s lieutenant governor signed into law a bill that will prohibit cities or towns from banning plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam cups or other non-biodegradable fast-food containers that all too often end up as litter.

It’s not a ban on this trash. As The Washington Post reported, it’s ban on banning the trash.

The backstory on this bizarre anti-environmental law is that the Democratic-led county that includes Ann Arbor wanted to reduce the amount of plastic debris cluttering up its streams, streets and parks.  And so Washtenaw County, Michigan, followed the lead of San Francisco, Washington D.C., Montgomery County, Maryland, and other progressive communities and voted to impose a fee on plastic bags in an effort to discourage their use. 

 But then the fast-food industry convinced the Republican led legislature to pre-empt this any other similar local laws that might require them to spend more money on biodegradable bags and cups.

It’s a trend playing out across the country:  with local governments trying to clean up their local environments, and then state assemblies overruling local decision making power. Republican-led state legislatures in Wisconsin, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana have also banned bans on plastic bags.

And it’s not just an issue for managing litter – but also the spraying of pesticides, the construction and monitoring factory farms, the encouragement of rooftop solar panels, the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, and other issues.  Local people want to act; but state lawmakers – often Republicans – insist they know better.

There is some irony here. At the federal level, Republicans – including the incoming Trump administration and leadership of the House and Senate -- often insist that decisions are better made not by the federal government, but at the state and local level, where people have more intimate contact with the problems.  But then when you get to the state level, the politicians change their tunes – and insist that locals don’t know enough to make informed decisions.

The people of Denton, Texas, for example, voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking within the limits of their suburban community in 2015. But then the gas-industry friendly Texas state legislature overruled them and banned any local bans on fracking.

Pennsylvania passed a similar drilling and fracking friendly law in 2012, although that state’s Supreme Court later ruled portions of the state law restricting local controls were unconstitutional.

What’s going on here?  

Many of these anti-environmental initiatives are not springing on their own. They are part of a coordinated and well-funded effort by an industry-friendly lobbying organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC for short, which is funded in part by big polluters like Exxon Mobil and Charles and David Koch, owners of oil refineries and fertilizer factories.

ALEC promotes what it calls “model legislation” for state legislators to copy nationally.  Michigan’s law on plastic bags, for example, is very similar to model legislation that ALEC has posted on its website as a template to “protect businesses and consumer choice.”

 “The free market is the best arbiter of the container,” says the lobbying organization on its website.

Of course, the free market won’t keep fast-food containers out of our streets or parks or waterways like the Chesapeake Bay. But that’s not the concern of ALEC and its political allies.

This week, the 115th Congress started its work in our nation’s capital.

Within days, the Republican-led House and Senate are expected vote on a bill called the REINS act, which stands for Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act. The measure, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would require any major new regulation from EPA or other federal agencies to be subject to a vote of approval from both chambers of Congress.

This additional and unprecedented burden for new regulations might effectively impose a national ban on bans that would help the environment.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.