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Battle Over Plastic Bag Bans Intensifies in Pennsylvania, Minnesota & Elsewhere

The national battle over plastic bags is heating up. As more cities ban or move to restrict the disposables, certain state governments are pushing back, enacting legislation that bars local governments from instituting prohibitions on the plastic carriers. The debate is relevant to the promotional products industry because bag bans can potentially fertilize local markets for sales of branded reusable totes.

In the plastic bag conflict, the Pennsylvania state legislature fired the latest high-profile salvos. Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would prohibit cities, towns, and counties in the Keystone State from banning or taxing recyclable plastic bags. The state House passed the measure in April, and it has now been sent to Gov. Tom Wolf to sign into law. Whether that will happen is unclear. Wolf is against the measure, but hadn’t yet indicated if he would use his veto power to block it.

Meanwhile, state legislators in Minnesota recently blocked a bag ban Minneapolis aimed to implement. City leaders had passed an ordinance that would have prohibited stores from giving out plastic bags, though there were limited exceptions. Additionally, the ordinance would have enacted a 5-cent charge on paper bags, though customers using public assistance to buy food would not be subjected to the per-bag fee. Nonetheless, just two days before the ordinance was to take effect on June 1, Minnesota Gov. Tom Dayton signed a state legislature-backed bill into law that barred cities from banning any type of bag, including paper, plastic or reusable. The state law effectively nullified Minneapolis’ intended ban, though a city official is pressing forward with a plan to have a fee of five or 10 cents implemented on plastic bags. A City Council vote on that measure could come by late summer or early fall, but there are indications the state could again step in to counteract the measure.

In the bag ban debate, business groups and some state legislators are often pitted against environmental advocates and local governments. Business groups representing grocers, restaurateurs and others have argued that a patchwork of local ordinances on plastic bags would make it costly and confusing for businesses to comply. Some state legislators have echoed that concern, and noted that banning plastic bags could kill American jobs – certainly a worry in Pennsylvania where 1,500 people reportedly work in facilities that make or recycle plastic bags. “This is real, and this affects people’s jobs,” PA state Rep. Frank Farry told Philly.com.

On the other side of the debate, green-minded bag ban supporters say the plastic bags are an environmental menace that should be eradicated. For starters, they note that plastic bags are created using fossil fuels and large amounts of water and energy. Furthermore, the non-biodegradable bags are typically discarded within minutes and quickly go on to cause litter problems in towns and cities. They also can clog up stormwater systems, pollute local waterways, and end up in the ocean where they can choke or strangle marine and avian life.

Local governments should have the power to try to prevent such ills from emanating from and/or occurring within their borders, bag ban advocates say. “The City of Pittsburgh or the City of Philadelphia or any other municipality should have the tools at its disposal to deal with local problems like litter,” PA state Rep. Greg Vitali told Philly.com.

In total, eight states have reportedly instituted laws that prevent local governments from banning or taxing plastic bags. California, meanwhile, has gone the other direction, enacting a ban on single-use plastic bags at big retailers. Similarly, cities across the U.S. have put bag bans and/or fees on the books. And, even as state governments contemplate crackdowns, more cities continue to consider implementing bag bans. For instance, Salem, MA, plans to roll out a bag ban in January, while nearby Beverly, MA, is considering working up a ban of its own.

Who will ultimately prevail in the bag wars? It’s tough to say. For sure, neither side can say victory is in the bag.