Michigan the Latest to Preempt Municipalities from Banning Plastic Bags

Michigan has joined a small but growing list of states that have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from banning single-use plastic bags or charging for bags, as is done in California. Critics assail it as an 'attack on local control.'
January 2, 2017, 7am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Following in the footsteps of Arizona and Missouri in 2015 and Idaho in 2016, Michigan has passed legislation to preempt cities or counties from regulating single-use plastic bags or other disposable containers.

The legislation, S.B. 853, appears to have been written to target Washtenaw County (county seat is Ann Arbor, home of University of Michigan) which planned to start enforcing a 10-cent charge on paper and plastic grocery bags on Earth Day, 2017. No other local government in the state had passed such an ordinance, though some have discussed it, according to fiscal analyst, Elizabeth Pratt.

"Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, spoke in opposition to the bill on the House floor," reported Emily Lawler, capitol reporter for MLive.

"This is a bill that attacks local control," Irwin said.

The bill passed anyway, 62-46. It passed the Senate 25-12. [Lt. Gov. Brian] Calley signed it on [Dec. 28]; it's his constitutional power to sign bills when Gov. Rick Snyder is out of the state. Snyder is out of state spending time with his family, a spokeswoman said.  

Unlike in California, it was not the plastics industry behind the effort to ensure single-use plastic bags would remain unregulated by local governments. The industry successfully argued that the "California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should apply to ordinances banning plastic bags," according to plasticbaglaws.org. "Thus, prior to passing a law banning plastic bags, cities have been required to complete Environmental Impact Reviews."

Instead, it was the Michigan Restaurant Association that claimed a victory with the bill's signing. "It prevents chain restaurants and retailers for having to comply with a patchwork of local container ordinances," said association Vice President of Government Affairs Robert O'Meara.

However, the Washtenaw County ordinance only targeted retail grocery stores. Not even the California statewide ban that passed in 2014 applied to restaurants. The plastics industry financed a referendum on the law. Californians voted on Nov. 8, 2016 to uphold the ban, winning with 53.7 percent of the vote. 

The only other state to ban the plastic grocery bag is Hawaii, though done on a county level. The Honolulu ordinance specifically exempts "[b]ags used to protect or transport prepared foods, beverages, or bakery goods, including takeout bags used at restaurants, fast food restaurants, and lunch wagons, to transport prepared foods." [embolden is part of text].

The association may have been more concerned with the "auxiliary container" ban aspect of the bill, as stated in their press release [PDF] after the bill was signed:

Currently, there are a number of local units of government across the state that have taken action to implement additional taxes and fees on businesses that not only use plastic bags, and auxiliary containers such as Styrofoam cups and cardboard boxes.

There was a sound economic reason for Washtenaw County to pass the plastic bag ordinance.

"The county estimates annual plastic-bag waste-management costs exceed $200,000 for the two publicly owned material recovery facilities in the county, counting damage to equipment, decreased operations and labor efficiencies, increased waste-to-landfill costs and jeopardized commodity market values," reports Ryan Stanton for Ann Arbor News.

And then there are environmental reasons to reduce plastic bag waste.

"Research suggests that 5 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic may have been dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone," reports Chelsea Harvey, who covered the Michigan legislation for The Washington Post.

There, the waste is frequently eaten by seabirds and other marine animals — or it breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics, which scientists believe can be harmful or even toxic to sea creatures who ingest it.

Since 2009, the District of Columbia has charged a nickel for single-use plastic grocery bags.

Hat tip to Loren Spiekerman
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Published on Thursday, December 29, 2016 in MLive
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