Texas lawmaker wants to stop plastic grocery bag bans

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 15, 2013 

Texas State Rep. Drew Springer embraces freedom.

Even for plastic bags.

The Republican from Muenster recently filed "The Shopping Bag Freedom Act," a bill intended to block plastic-bag bans in Austin and other Texas cities.

Such bans are designed to push customers into buying reusable bags at the checkout stand or bringing some to the store.

Supporters praise the bans as a boost for the environment.

Critics deride them as unwarranted government intrusion that could increase costs for consumers.

"At a time of economic recession and with food prices at an all-time high, this hidden social tax on the poor will cause many to have to choose between necessary items such as milk and bread or having a reusable bag to carry their groceries," Springer said. "This type of government overreach must be stopped here and now.

"If a municipality can ban bags, what is to say they won't mandate how large a soda can be or how much salt one can put on their food."

Plastic bags have been a mainstay in grocery and convenience stores and restaurants for decades, edging out paper bags in popularity soon after they were introduced.

Environmentalists say that up to 1 trillion bags are used worldwide each year and that the so-called urban tumbleweeds clog water sources, get stuck in trees and bushes, block drainage systems, endanger wildlife, pile up in streets and take decades or centuries to decompose.

"It has gotten to the point where we have fields of bags," said Benjamin Isgur, a Fort Worth board member of the nonprofit Texas Campaign for the Environment. "In terms of not messing with Texas, we've messed it up a bit.

"We think this is a bad bill," he said. "It takes local control away from cities and officials who make decisions for their communities. It's a top-down decision that doesn't allow people to make decisions for their own communities."

'Nanny-state' agenda?

A few Texas cities stretching from Austin to Brownsville have passed rules against lightweight plastic bags, joining cities nationwide such as Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle, as well as countries including France, China and Somalia.

Austin was the latest city to ban bags, with restrictions taking effect March 1.

The Texas Retailers Association has filed a lawsuit seeking to throw out the Austin ordinance.

North Texas cities have not jumped on the bandwagon, but several, including Fort Worth, have said they are monitoring what other cities do and may act later.

But Springer -- who said bag bans are the latest way for "government elites" to "push forward a misguided nanny-state agenda" -- is acting now.

His House Bill 2416 states that "a business that sells an item to a customer may provide to the customer at the point of sale a bag, package or other container made from any material."

It also states that a regulation by a local government trying to restrict the distribution of bags at the point of sale "is invalid and has no effect."

Springer said reusable bags bring health concerns. Without regular cleaning, he said, contamination in the bag could lead to E. coli poisoning.

"They can't expect everyone will wash their bags regularly," said Springer, who lives about 80 miles north of Fort Worth.

"This policy puts uninformed populations at risk of serious illness and even death. Even if bag hygiene was realistic, why mandate people to waste more water on laundry in a time of severe drought in the region and state?"

If Springer's bill becomes law, it would take effect Sept. 1.

This bill "reflects the idea that governments -- local, state, national -- have gone too far," said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"The chance of passage of [the bill] is not very good, but [it] still is reflective of a growing disenchantment in some political quarters of being fed-up with government encroachment."

Opposing views

Communities from San Francisco to Brownsville and Seattle to Austin have passed bans requiring shoppers to bring or buy reusable bags to tote home their groceries.

They hope to reduce problems related to the bags, which can clog water treatment plants and cause wildlife to choke.

"If a community decides they want to do things a certain way, people should be able to go to their city councils, leaders, and talk about it," Isgur said.

"This bill wouldn't let them. ... I don't think there's a compelling reason for that."

At the same time, national campaigns such as "Bag the Ban" -- a project initiated by South Carolina-based recycling manufacturer Hilex Poly -- are trying to "defeat plastic bag bans and taxes across the country."

The effort offers an online petition to stop bans and says "it's time for a common-sense plastic bag policy that's good for the economy, the environment and working families."

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