So, let’s get this straight.
Austin is responsible for picking up litter, paying for landfill space, clearing out the debris that clogs stormwater drainage pipes and protecting the wildlife along city waterways that could choke on discarded plastic bags.
But cities can’t regulate the disposable plastic bags that contribute to all those problems.
The Texas Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down Laredo’s plastic bag ban, likely dooming similar bans in Austin and other cities, illustrates the absurdity of the tug-of-war over local control.
State officials use their power to dissolve local ordinances they don’t agree with. Cities are stuck with the costs — financial and otherwise — of problems they’re not allowed to address.
We’ve seen this show before, with the Legislature last year overturning the will of Austin voters on ride-hailing regulations for services like Uber and Lyft, and two years earlier overriding the decision by Denton voters to ban hydraulic fracking in their community.
Lawmakers couldn’t muster enough votes last year to kill city tree ordinances, outlaw transgender-friendly bathroom policies or further limit cities’ taxing abilities — all issues of local concern best left in the hands of local officials who are most responsive to the people they represent. But we expect the Legislature to resume those ideologically-driven battles when lawmakers return next year.
Indeed, if Gov. Greg Abbott had his way, there would be “a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations,” the governor told the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute last year.
While many of the local control battles have been waged at the statehouse, the plastic bag ban was decided by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, which opened its 19-page ruling by noting: “The roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs has not, with increased age, lost any of its vigor.”
Nor have cities found a way to gain the upper hand, even when the benefit to the public is clear.
Austin’s plastic bag ban, which went into effect in 2013, led to Austinites using nearly 200 million fewer plastic bags a year, according to a 2015 report commissioned by the city. In that same report, crews with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department reported an “overwhelming decrease” in the bags they found littering waterways and clogging drainage areas, and the Austin Parks Foundation reported a 90 percent drop in plastic bags littering the city’s parks and trails.
Even so, Austin’s measure needed more work. The city ordinance allowed thicker, reusable plastic bags to be sold to customers who didn’t bring their own bags to the store. Unfortunately, far too many of those bags became throwaway items. Austinites sent an estimated 23 tons of those heavier plastic bags a year to the city’s recycling centers, the 2015 report found, nearly offsetting the benefit of keeping the single-use bags out of the recycling stream. And the recycling centers used by the city aren’t set up to recycle plastic film, so those bags end up in the landfill.
Texas law prohibits cities from regulating “containers” or “packages” in the realm of managing garbage. The Texas Supreme Court extended the reading of that law to prohibit cities from regulating disposable plastic bags that may someday become litter. The court’s ruling took a statute that had the stated purpose of protecting the environment and reducing waste, and used it to nullify municipal plastic bag bans that serve those very goals.
Two justices issued a concurring opinion acknowledging these plastics “have become a scourge on the environment and an economic drain,” and they urged the Legislature to address the disposable bag problem. Given previous efforts by GOP lawmakers to nullify local bag bans, we’re not holding our breath.
Austin’s attorneys are still examining the ruling to determine how the city’s ordinance is affected. Whatever happens next, though, residents and businesses can take simple steps to protect the environment.
After five years of reaching for their reusable bags before walking into a store, many Austin residents have made this earth-friendly practice a part of their daily lives. Residents should continue using their reusable bags, recognizing we all benefit by keeping disposable plastic bags from polluting the landscape.
Retailers should show their support of Austin values by not restocking the disposable plastic bags — and by getting rid of the thicker, reusable plastic bags that also frequently end up in the trash as well.
Stores should still provide heavier paper bags, which are recyclable, for customers who need them. By continuing to charge customers for paper bags, retailers can encourage use of reusable bags, reminding the public that single-use bags carry a cost to the community.
The Texas Supreme Court made the wrong call on plastic bag bans — but Austin residents and retailers can still do the right thing.