Legislators Take Up the Great Plastic Bag Debate

This week, committees in both chambers heard testimony about bills to encourage recycling of plastic grocery bags. But environmentalists fear that the legislation would prevent local communities from banning plastic bags altogether, as three Texas cities have done.

Texans use vast amounts of plastic bags when they shop for groceries, and lawmakers are attempting to encourage people to recycle the bags — though not to ban them altogether.

On Tuesday the Senate's Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee's chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House's Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

"It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors," said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a "free market-based solution," he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would "preempt" local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

"We shouldn't tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a "transition" period for plastic bags. "We've got plastic bags in the system and we're moving toward trying to eliminate them," he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was "nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream," and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill's language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

Robert Pinkerton Jr., the mayor of South Padre Island, said his area passed a bag ban recently because they were creating a big problem at the beach. "They're like the West Texas tumbleweeds, constantly blowing around," he told the Senate committee. They often end up in the water or wrapped around sea turtles, he said. South Padre was "desperately hoping for [nearby] Port Isabel to pass" a ban, he said.

Darren Hodges, a city councilman at Fort Stockton, told the House committee today that he was worried that the bill would prevent his city from banning bags (Fraser's assurances apparently notwithstanding). "If you drive by Fort Stockton, you have to have a reason to get off, and if you see every fence post covered with a plastic bag," that might be less likely, he said.

Art Rodriguez, the director of public health in Brownsville, also opposed the bill for fear of its impact on Brownsville. Already, Brownsville estimates that it has been spared more than 300,000 bags, he said. Now, Rodriguez reflected to the House committee, "We are seeing other litter we could not see before because the bags covered it."

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.