Democrats seek to reverse Michigan’s ban-on-bans of plastic bags
- A Republican-passed law in 2016 prohibited local governments from banning or imposing a fee on plastic bags and similar containers
- Democratic lawmakers are pushing for repeal
- That would pave the way for communities like Ann Arbor to regulate bags, but business groups warn of costs
Michigan Democrats took a step forward Thursday in their quest to abolish a controversial “ban on bans” of plastic bags.
A House committee heard testimony on a bill that aims to reverse a 2016 state law — passed when Republicans controlled the Legislature — that prevents local municipalities from restricting the use of disposable plastic bags and containers.
“Simply put, this is an issue of local control,” said Rep. Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield Township, who introduced the bill in April.
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Now that her party is in power, Brabec said she hopes to restore local government’s ability to address a large and growing pollution issue.
“This bill allows local municipalities to make their own decisions about auxiliary containers, and that can include bags, cups, bottles, and other packaging used to transport food,” she said.
The 2016 law, which made it illegal for local governments to ban or tax plastic items, passed soon after Washtenaw County attempted to impose a 10-cent fee on grocery store bags.
Environmentalists and local government groups have been pushing for a repeal ever since. The repeal was among tasks Democratic leaders vowed to take up when they took power in January.
Brabec’s House Bill 4359, and a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township, have won praise from environmental and local government advocates, but business groups have raised concerns that the measures could be costly for stores, restaurants and their customers.
John McNamara, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said restaurants increasingly rely on takeout in the post-COVID world. Complying with a patchwork of policies as communities choose whether to regulate bags or other containers could pose an “administrative nightmare,” he said.
Rep. Dave Prestin, R-Cedar River, said he shares the concern about bans extending beyond plastic bags and into food containers.
“A lot of these containers that are at risk are really relied upon by the general public for the safe storage and transport of ready-to-eat food,” Prestin said.
Democratic members of the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee pushed back against those claims during the hearing, arguing that Michigan already embraces local control on a host of other issues from public health to liquor sales, and that lifting the ban on local single-use plastics regulation wouldn’t automatically prompt every community to restrict those products.
“To be clear,” Brabec said, “this bill does not require any communities to ban plastic bags or auxiliary containers. It merely gives folks the option to.”
Brabec noted that 21 states allow local governments to enforce bans or fees on plastic bags, while 10 states have statewide bans.
An estimated 22 million pounds of plastic waste end up in the Great Lakes yearly, according to a study from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“There’s a lot of health issues that go along with that as well,” said Chris Semrinec, state government affairs coordinator for the Michigan League of Conservation voters.
Microplastics, which are created as bags and containers break down into smaller pieces once released into the environment, can wind up in the human body. Researchers say microplastics are capable of damaging nerve cells, potentially affecting male fertility and infant development.
So far, Washtenaw County, home to Ann Arbor, is the only Michigan community that has attempted to regulate single-use plastics. The county’s law imposing a 10-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in retail stores had not yet taken effect when lawmakers passed the 2016 law.
As the committee considered Brabec’s bill, Ann Arbor Deputy City Administrator John Fournier noted that plastic bags get washed into storm drains, clogging them and worsening flooding during rainstorms.
“If these other places are making it succeed,” Fournier said, referring to states around the country that have taken steps to limit plastics, “we’re good enough to make it succeed too.”
The committee did not vote on the bills Thursday, but Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, who chairs the committee, said it will take the issue up again in the future.
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