Plastic bag bans draw unexpected supporters in Texas: cotton ginners and cattle rancher

Bans or fees on carryout bags have become a popular and effective way  to act locally to reduce the global impacts of single-use plastic  consumption. Environmental impacts  specific to plastic bags include windblown litter, ocean plastic  pollution, clogging municipal recycling machinery, and greenhouse gas  production associated with creating superfluous single-use products. Plastic bag laws have been adopted locally in at least 20 states in the U.S. and in at least 40 countries worldwide, with the goal of changing consumer behavior by encouraging customers to bring their own bags or refusing a bag altogether for small purchases.

One  of the biggest threats to the adoption of local plastic bag laws is  state preemption, which prohibits municipalities from adopting certain  local ordinances - in this case bans or fees on carryout bags. Such  preemption laws infringe upon municipalities’ rights to regulate  traditionally “local” fields such as the protection of health and  safety, including the power to regulate waste.

The Supreme Court of Texas is currently reviewing a preemption challenge  to the City of Laredo’s plastic bag ban, which claims that the ban was  preempted by a Texas solid waste statute adopted in 1993. City of Laredo, Texas v. Laredo Merchant’s Association  (Case No. 16-0748), has wide-ranging implications for other local  governments in Texas that have adopted or seek to adopt local plastic  bag laws. An amicus brief, also known as a “Friend of the Court”  brief, was filed in support of the City of Laredo’s plastic bag ban by  the Texas Cotton Ginners’ Association and a Texas cattle rancher. 

Both  amicus parties are concerned with plastic bags as windblown litter,  particularly on agricultural land near highways. The cotton ginners’  concern is that plastic bags contaminate the cotton crop and are  impossible to remove, explaining that plastic carryout bags are a  particular problem to remove because they’re often white - the same  color as cotton bolls when they’re ready for harvest. The cattle  rancher’s concern is that his cow’s stomach was obstructed after eating  plastic bag litter, which he describes as “an excruciating way to die.”

The concerns of the cotton ginners and cattle rancher fall outside of  the ocean protection themes typically associated with plastic bag law  advocates, demonstrating that support for local plastic bag laws  transcends industries and political lines. Additionally, agricultural  and economic concerns have huge potential impacts in Texas. According to  the Texas Department of Agriculture, the top two commodities in terms  of cash receipts in Texas in 2012 were Cattle ($10.5 billion) and Cotton  ($2.2 billion). Given the importance of these commodities to Texas’  economy, to quote the brief: “This case is about not just Laredo. This  case is about something that many Texans hold dear: local control. Here,  local control means the ability of cities to have the tools to regulate  a burdensome contaminant: plastic bags.”

The Supreme Court of Texas will hear oral argument on the case on January 11, 2018. 

Last updated July 17, 2018

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