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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

ALEC Takes Aim At Plastic Bag Bans


The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has it in for plastic bag bans and regulation of plastic bags in general. Recently, the Wisconsin state senate passed a bill that prohibits local communities from banning plastic bags and other types of containers.

The bill is based on ALEC’s model legislation which states that “the cost of regulation, inspection, and enforcement should not be borne by local families, merchants, and taxpayers.” It emphasizes the “cost” of “regulating containers” to local communities.

The Wisconsin bill, strikingly similar to the organization's model legislation, limits the authority of local communities “to regulate auxiliary containers” and prevent them from enacting or enforcing “an ordinance regulating the use, disposition or sale of auxiliary containers.” The legislation also prohibits a fee being imposed on plastic bags and other containers.

A few years ago, ALEC wrote a policy brief on plastic bag bans and cited a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis as evidence against them. The report found “no evidence of a reduction in costs attributable to reduced use of plastic bags.” It concluded that in cities “that have adopted bag bans, fees or taxes, there is little evidence so far that banning or taxing plastic bags will reduce waste disposal costs and save money.”

ALEC concluded its policy brief with a dire warning: “Remember the evidence, and reject any measure banning plastic bags, which puts jobs at risk and targets a single product and industry.”

However, there is evidence that regulating plastic bag use does reduce pollution, as a look at plastic bag taxes in Ireland and Washington, D.C. shows. Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 of about 33 cents per bag. The New York Times reported in 2008 that “within week, there was a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use” and “within a year, nearly everyone bought reusable cloth bags.” The United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) said of Ireland’s plastic bag tax in 2005 that it had “reduced the use of plastic bags by 90 percent.”

Washington, D.C. introduced a five-cent per bag tax in 2009 on all businesses that sell food and beverages. The revenue from the tax goes to a fund to clean up the Anacostia River. The Washington Post reported that just during January 2010 the tax “generated about $150,000.”

There is also evidence that an actual plastic bag ban works to reduce use of plastic bags. The UNEP cited South Africa’s ban of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns as helping to decrease “bag litter” and reduce the “manufacture of plastic bags.”

So, if regulating plastic bags actually works, why does ALEC lobby against regulation? A 2014 Bloomberg investigation into ALEC and noted that the organization “doesn't disclose its private-sector members, who pay dues of up to $25,000.” Bloomberg stated that executives from a number of companies met with ALEC, and one of them was from Novolex, a paper and plastic bag maker. In other words, ALEC is doing the bidding of the plastic bag industry, which does not want regulation.

Novolex started a project called Bag the Ban “developed in response to proposed laws that would ban or tax grocery bags.” Novolex makes a point of citing how many people are employed by the plastic bag industry and claims that plastic bags are a “more environmentally-friendly option” than paper or reusable bags. However, what the company and the project it created fail to mention is that plastic bags are actually very harmful to the environment.

Plastic bags, like all plastic products, are petroleum-derived and loaded with toxic chemicals. Those plastic bags end up in landfills where they photodegrade, or break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic bags also end up in the world’s oceans: There is a mass of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and about 80 percent of it comes from land activities in North America and Asia, according to National Geographic. Marine animals often mistake bits of plastic for food, which is toxic for them.

Clearly, ALEC and Novolex just don't care that plastic bags are harmful to the environment. But some local communities do and want to pass ordinances to reduce plastic bags. Unfortunately, ALEC is trying to make it impossible for them to do so.

Photo: Flickr/Jericl Cat

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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