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Why Michigan Banned Banning Plastic Bags

A new state law prevents cities and counties from restricting use of plastic bags or disposable cups and utensils

(Jonathan Kos-Read /Flickr)
smithsonian.com

In November, voters in California upheld a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. In September, France joined in, outlawing the bags along with non-biodegradable plastic plates, cups and cutlery—a ruling that will take effect in 2020. And last week the state of Michigan also took a stand on plastic bags. But not the one you might think.

According to Chelsea Harvey at The Washington Post, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley (the governor was on vacation) signed legislation that bans the banning of plastic bags. It also prohibits counties or cities from outlawing disposable cups and other plastic containers.

According to Emily Lawler at MLive, the bag ban ban was pushed primarily by the Michigan Restaurant Association, which argued that a different systems of bag fees and bans across different municipalities in the state would make it difficult for chain restaurants and retailers to comply.

“With many of our members owning and operating locations across the state, preventing a patchwork approach of additional regulations is imperative to avoid added complexities as it related to day-to-day business operations,” says Robert O’Meara, the vice president of government affairs for Michigan Restaurant Association says in a press release.

Surprisingly, Michigan is not the first state to put the kibosh on bag bans. Idaho, Arizona and Missouri have all passed similar statutes reports Harvey.

Plastic is a scourge on the environment. One trillion bags are produced every year and 90 percent of those are discarded after one use, reports Lucy Bayly at NBC News. Many of those end up in the oceans or other waterways where they take decades or centuries to biodegrade.

Anti-bag activists also argue that the bags are a burden for businesses, big and small. “Disposable bags cost retailers a lot of money, and with their narrow profit margins and stiff competition it can be challenging for [stores] to act on their own, voluntarily,” Julie Lawson of Trash Free Maryland tells Bayly. “The average plastic bag gets used for 12 minutes. It makes a lot of sense to use a reusable one,” she says.

In the U.S., aside from California, 200 municipalities have banned one-time use containers, Bayly reports. Even so, the results have been a mixed bag.

In Washington D.C. a 2009 bag ban has led to a 50% reduction in single-use bags. In Los Angeles, a 2011 10-cent bag tax has reduced bag use from 2.2 million per year to 125,000. But in Austin, Texas, researchers found that a 2013 bag ban led people to start using trash-can liners, which are just as polluting.

An ordinance in Dallas rescinded its five-cent bag fee after being sued by bag manufacturers. Chicago repealed a plastic bag ban on January 1, 2017 that only lasted 16 months. The plan is to replace it with a seven-cent bag tax later this year, though Bayly says many retailers find the details of the law confusing. Currently many other states and municipalities are looking to either ban plastic bags or preempt bans on plastic bags in the coming year.

Though the effectiveness of the current laws are debatable, something must be done about the proliferating plastics that are clogging waterways and killing off wildlife. It's a problem too big to ignore.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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