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Bill that would prohibit cities from banning plastic bags passes committee

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Some state lawmakers want to stop local governments from banning plastic bags, even though no Alabama cities have considered such action as of yet.

Bills sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, would prohibit local counties or municipalities from enacting any ban or tax on bags or other similar single-use items.

Senate Bill 244 and House Bill 346 were approved in committees this week and now move to the Senate and House.

“We’re just trying to provide a uniformity of commerce for the state and protect Alabama businesses and consumers so they are not charged for that,” Livingston said.

Media reports earlier this week said the legislation has been seen in other states and originated from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that provides sample legislation to states.

Ledbetter told Alabama Daily News he received the bill from pro-business groups and that thousands of Alabamians work in the plastics industry.

“This really just comes down to small businesses and whether you want to put people out of a job,” Ledbetter said. “I understand that they want to stand up for their communities and I appreciate and respect that, but that’s not what this is about, it’s a small business bill and its to protect businesses across the state.”

The Alabama Retail Association is one of the groups that are in support of the bills and told ADN that they like the bill because it would provide a universal level of commerce across the state.

“We support the work of retailers across the state and we don’t want there to be an opportunity for there to be a patchwork of differing laws regarding plastic bags and other plastic products,” Melissa Warnke, a spokesperson for the Retail Association said. “If there is some sort of a ban we would like to see it a statewide ban and not just for an individual county or municipality.”

Tammy Herrington, the executive director of Conservation Alabama, dislikes the bill.

“We see this as a bad piece of legislation for environmental reasons, but also for the fact that we have seen similar legislation introduced in other states and this bill just seems to be one of those copy and paste piece of legislation and is coming from outside of Alabama and is not a constituent-led campaign,” Herrington said.

According to Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy group, discarded plastic accounts for 53 percent of the trash collected during a series of coastal marine debris clean-ups off the coast of Alabama.

Plastic bags and other plastic pollution can negatively affect waterways and animal life by blocking needed filtrations systems and causing intestinal blockage, starvation and death in sea life when they ingest the plastic.

Ledbetter said instead of banning bags, he  would instead like to see harsher fines put on those who are caught littering in order to deal with the plastics pollution problem.

“I would like to see an increase in the fines for littering because it’s not the bags that are the ones doing the littering,” Ledbetter said. “We’ve got to punish the people doing the littering.”

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D- Anniston, is a member of the House Governmental Affairs Committee and voted in favor of the bill, but declined to comment after the meeting.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is a co-sponsor on the Senate bill.

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said he’d support the bill if it gets to the Senate floor. He said it’s about keeping cost down and convenience for consumers.

“When you look at the type of bags they use, they break down fast and easily,” Allen said.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingam, said she is confused about why the bill was even brought up if there are currently no local governments banning the product.

The Alabama League of Municipalities said they are always concerned about legislation that would be preempting city authority on public policy and that they would be paying attention to the progression of the bill.

Sen. Chris Elliot, R-Daphne, said he voted no on the bill in committee because he thinks local governments should have control over it and how the problem of littering personally affects his district.

“I understand that this bill is about uniformity across the state, but I am a local government guy at heart and I believe that the decisions made at the local level are the best for the people,” Elliott told Alabama Daily News.

“There’s the undeniable link to my district because it is completely surrounded by water, that we get stuck with a lot of these plastic bags and Styrofoam products in our waterways and in the bay and I think we need to leave it to our local governments to address that if possible.”

Senators also said they understood the concerns over pollution but remained that the bill is about tackling concerns surrounding Alabama businesses.

“Those products are already in the water, that’s way past what we are talking about and we can’t do anything about that with this bill,” Livingston said. “That’s a littering problem, not a business problem.”

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, voted in favor of the bill and shares the same concerns as Livingston.

“I just thought it made more sense to be a statewide decision rather than have a difference between counties or cities. It would just lessen the confusion between everyone in the state,” Roberts said.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said that even though there is currently no ban, he wants to stay ahead of the movement to ban single-use plastic items that have been gaining popularity in certain states.

“I would rather be on the front side of this where the state has the same throughout and the reason being is for business throughout the state would have to put in different prices and different systems in stores, and the consumer may not even know what those prices may be until after they purchase something,” Gudger, who represents most of Lawrence County, said. 

“So I think it would be fair that if we did do a tax at some point, it would be the same throughout the state.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only states that have a state-wide ban on the use of single-use plastic bags are California, Hawaii and New York.

Gudger said he hates to see littering just as much as the next person but that this bill is meant to lookout for businesses.

“The good intended consequence of the ban would be for that, to help the environment, but this is an unintended consequence and I want to do what’s right for businesses and have a good repercussion from this which doesn’t always happen for businesses,” Gudger said.

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