GOP bill would prohibit bans on plastic bags

Republican lawmakers are trying to prevent municipal bans on plastic grocery bags with a bill that could get final approval this month.

But municipalities and environmental groups are opposed.

Similar fights have played out in several states, from a potential statewide ban on plastic bags in California to a new one that took effect in Chicago last year. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has called Austin’s plastic bag ordinance a “ridiculous, unnecessary” regulation.

Though no such bans exist in Wisconsin, they would become illegal under a bill that passed the Assembly and this week cleared a Senate committee. The legislation also would make illegal local regulations on any other single-use or reusable “auxiliary containers,” such as take-out boxes, retailers and restaurants use.

The full Senate is due to meet March 15, and if it approves the Assembly version, the bill would go to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.

Under the bill, local governments also wouldn’t be able to implement fees on the use of such containers.

“Patchwork ordinances on widespread items make it difficult for all parties to navigate and comply with these regulations,” Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, said in a co-sponsorship memo.

The bill has the backing of several business lobbying groups, including retailers, restaurants, papermakers and the beverage association. Also registering in favor of the bill are national interest groups, such as the American Progressive Bag Alliance and the American Chemistry Council, that have fought the battle elsewhere.

But opposing it is the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which says lawmakers shouldn’t “pre-empt our ability to regulate.” The league was able to insert an amendment that clarifies the bill won’t affect local recycling programs.

Also against the bill is the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club, whose program manager, Elizabeth Ward, said plastic bags are “extremely wasteful” and aren’t biodegradable.

“It’s pretty heavy-handed and goes against the direction we should be moving toward in general,” Ward said.

The sides disagree on the environmental effects of the bans, although a recent study in Austin showed mixed results from the city’s efforts. The city didn’t ban plastic bags, but it required businesses provide thicker reusable plastic bags, instead of the flimsier single-use ones.

That study found the city dramatically reduced the amount of single-use plastic bags. But it also found many people weren’t bringing their renewable bags back to stores. Instead, many of those bags ended up in landfills and take even longer to break down than the thinner bags.

“From the perspective of judging whether the ordinance was successful in its task, the answer is a resounding ‘yes,'” the author of the report wrote. “However, if all other aspects of this issue are considered, the answer becomes less clear. Simply reducing the usage of a product does not guarantee a positive environmental or economic impact.”

Business groups, meanwhile, say their members want to avoid the patchwork of local ordinances. Some cities across the country, for example, are banning styrofoam containers at restaurants, making it difficult for those with multiple locations, said Peter Hanson, the vice president of public affairs at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Brandon Scholz, the president & CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, echoed those concerns.

“If you are a chain store, you now have to have different standards for your stores even though it’s the same company,” Scholz said.

But John Bahr, who’s leading efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags in Wauwatosa, calls the bill a “really bad idea.” Bahr owned a health care software design company before retiring, and he’s since been advocating for a fee on plastic bags in Wauwatosa because, he said, he realizes bans are unpopular.

Businesses, he said, need to join that effort.

“Sometimes there’s cost for doing the right thing,” he said. “The right thing is not to put plastic bags into our environment.”

–By Polo Rocha,