October 14, 2016

Bag it, Ken Paxton

The blog space is being turned over to a guest post this afternoon, in the wake of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton suing the city of Brownsville over its law on charging for plastic grocery bags.

By Robin Schneider
Texas Campaign for the Environment

State and national bag law advocates convened this week to defend bag ordinances in the wake of embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against Texas’ first local law against bag pollution in Brownsville. A range of organizations plan to assist as this issue lands in the lap of the Texas Supreme Court with the City of Laredo appealing a recent decision striking down that city’s bag law.

“The reasons for bag laws are as diverse as Texas,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, who played a leading role in passing the Austin bag ordinance and successfully defeating attempts to pre-empt bag ordinances at the state legislature since 2009. “For the West Texas city of Fort Stockton it was the death of livestock that ingest ‘plastic tumbleweed’ and ruin the desert landscape getting caught on cactus and barbed wire, while on the coast it’s concern over sea turtles, plastic in the food chain and beach pollution.”

The benefits of local ordinances have been obvious. “As a resident of the Rio Grande Valley, I have seen the very positive effects of the Bag Ordinances in Laguna Vista, South Padre Island and especially Brownsville.  One would not recognize Brownsville today compared to 2010 when the city very wisely passed their bag law,” said Rob Nixon, Chairman of the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter and Surfrider Foundation National Boardmember. “Attorney General Ken Paxton’s claim of the ‘buck a bag’ fee is disingenuous and not true.  If you need a plastic bag at one of only the seven retailers that got exemptions and implemented the fee, it is $1 for as many bags as you require for the purchase. That fee goes to a fund to clean up the bags that are dispersed from the exemptions,” he concluded.

As Texas groups organize into a statewide network, national bag advocates are also assisting. "State pre-emption of local plastic bag laws is an issue that has become much more prevalent nationally the last few years," said Jennie Romer, attorney and founder of plasticbaglaws.org. "What's unique about pre-emption disputes in Texas right now is that they're new fights about old laws: the provision that allegedly pre-empts local bag laws in Brownsville and Laredo has been on the books since 1993 and Brownsville's ordinance was adopted in 2009."

"Single-use plastic bags may seem convenient, but that is far outweighed by their impact—which is far-reaching and ubiquitous.  Every square inch of the planet is affected.  Legislation to reduce or eliminate the consumption of single-use bags has proven to be effective.” said Christopher Chin, Executive Director of the Center for Oceanic Awareness Research and Education (COARE).

Laredo’s bag ordinance came together with the help of students, business owners and city leaders in 2015. The Fourth Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, overturned the ordinance in August of this year. "Doesn’t the state have anything better to do than to crush the will of the people and its locally elected officials, to suit just a few business interests?”asked Tricia Cortez, director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, and the primary advocate for the ordinance.  “Conservation of our environment, and the protection of local wildlife and precious tax dollars, is at the heart of these plastic bag ordinances.  Why should protecting the wallets of the plastic bag industry be considered more important than protecting the long-term health, financial well-being, and beauty of our cities? It’s a disgrace what is happening behind closed doors in Austin right now on this issue, that attempts to address a pervasive local and global problem in our communities,” Cortez concluded.

Wildlife groups including Sea Turtle Inc. and the Turtle Island Restoration Network are concerned about the impact of bag pollution on these iconic Texas animals. “Turtle Island Restoration Network has been working with Surfrider Foundation, Galveston Chapter for two years to educate our residents and visitors about the impact of single-use plastic bags on the marine environment. With our close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston and West Bay, there is a strong possibility for single-use bags to enter our waterway,” said Joanie Steinhaus, Turtle Island Restoration Network’s Program Director for the Gulf of Mexico.

Additionally, there are many cities that have not yet enacted ordinances but which have been exploring them for some time now. These communities are looking to protect their rights to protect their environment.

"The Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club has campaigned for the last three years for a bag ordinance in Fort Worth,” said Conservation Chair John MacFarlane. “We believe that an ordinance to phase out these single use bags will improve the aesthetic of Fort Worth, help to mitigate storm drain clogging, and will help save aquatic animals and terrestrial wildlife from a slow toxic death. Attorney General Ken Paxton should spend his time solving problems, not attacking good local policies that are protecting wildlife, livestock, water resources and the environment."

Many groups are coming together to support the legal efforts to defend bag pollution and to work at the Legislature in the 2017 session to address state law as well. These new threats have sparked the formation of a new network among advocates from across Texas with the input of national bag ordinance experts.

The Texas communities with bag ordinances on the books include: Brownsville, South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, Fort Stockton, Laredo, Austin, Freer, Sunset Valley, Kermit and Port Aransas.

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