Austin Can’t Ban Plastic Bags, But it Can Ask Politely

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In June, the Texas Supreme Court upheld a state preemption against city plastic bag bans. But while Austin officials have agreed to play along, they’re also testing out a simple new strategy to eliminate single-use plastic: Appealing to retailers’ better nature.

The resolution taken up Thursday by the Austin City Council essentially just asks nicely that local stores keep honoring the (now-forbidden) bag ban.

“Plastic bags, as convenient as they may be, have a really detrimental effect” on the local environment, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, a sponsor of the resolution, recently told the Austin Monitor.

The ban was in place for five years, according to the Monitor, and it was apparently fairly popular among local retailers. Not a single fine was ever levied against a business for violating the ordinance. And local retailers made money selling reusable bags — it’s unknown how much, in total, but according to the paper, similar bans in other cities have been quite lucrative.

The “asking nicely” tactic may be a good choice for cities in Utah as well. As Next City has covered, Salt Lake City leaders are ready to “bag the bag” too, but fear that such an effort could bring about a swift preemption from the state.

“Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where [a ban] always works,” Kate Whitbeck, a member of the Utah Recycling Alliance, said at a Downtown Merchants Association Meeting earlier this year. “The problem, or what we’re seeing in other states, is that frequently one community will say, ‘OK, this is how we want to solve the problem — let’s create a ban, let’s eliminate plastic bags from our community,’ and then, you know, if that’s not a solution the rest of the state feels is the right solution, especially state legislators, then they create a ban a on a ban.”

A better solution — and one favored by a majority of city leaders — would be for states to stop preempting city ordinances that have been democratically enacted. As Next City has covered, state preemption laws that apply to tenant rights, plastic bag bans, fair wage laws and gun regulations disproportionally impact women and people of color. And from blocking the creation of affordable housing tools to preempting paid sick leave, the Texas state legislature is a chronic offender.

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