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As Arizona cities consider banning plastic bags, Legislature may stop them

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TEMPE – To City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby, those seemingly ubiquitous plastic bags people tote home from grocery stores and other establishments become windblown trash, choke recycling machines and hurt the environment.

“The city of Tempe uses over 15 million single use plastic bags that end up in our storm drains, Tempe Town Lake, and in our landscapes,” she said.

Kuby is seeking input from residents and businesses on a proposed ordinance banning single-use plastic bags.

“It’s such a nuisance – the litter, the cost to the city – and we believe that it is important to get those plastic bags out of the waste stream,” she said.

Bisbee banned plastic bags in 2014, and Flagstaff is also considering a ban.

But a bill before the state Legislature would prevent cities, towns and counties from enacting ordinances banning, requiring deposits or charges for or restricting plastic bags in other ways.

It’s contained in a strike-everything amendment to a bill authored by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, that would prevent local governments from placing a range of conservation requirements on businesses, including mandatory reporting of energy consumption and restrictions on plastic bottles.

Tim McCabe, president of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, who testified in support of the amendment, said the change would allow consumers to have what they want. Many use the bags to line wastebaskets or dutifully turn them in at retailers to be recycled, he said.

“We know here in Arizona that the majority of people still want their plastic bags,” McCabe said.

He also said having different rules in various localities would be confusing for customers as well as businesses. Ensuring consistency around the state would prevent that, he added.

Addressing the House Commerce Committee, which approved the amendment March 18 on a party-line vote, Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said local governments should be able to decide the issue.

“These are not really statewide matters as far as I am concerned,” he said.

Some cities and states have targeted plastic bags in recent years.

San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007 at large supermarkets and chain pharmacies and expanded the ban in 2012 to include retailers and restaurants. It also requires a 10-cent charge for paper bags to encourage the use of reusable bags.

A California law taking effect in July will ban large retail stores from handing out single-use plastic bags. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, bills in New Jersey and Puerto Rico would ban single-use bags, and another New Jersey proposal would require a 5-cent fee for each disposable bag.

The Bisbee City Council voted 4-3 in 2013 to ban single-use plastic bags and require a 5-cent charge for paper bags. That ordinance took effect last year.

Mayor Ron Oertle, who took office after the vote, said he’s seen one positive effect even though he called the City Council’s decision divisive.

“I will say that the town is cleaner,” he said.

While many now carry reusable bags, Oertle said hard feelings linger among many residents who contend their wishes weren’t taken into account. A few weeks ago, he proposed putting the matter to voters, but the Council voted it down 4-3.

“I think on these issues that really affect everybody the communities need to vote on it, the people need to get out,” he said. “Because it creates divisions and animosities in the community, and here the rancor has been rather intense.”

As for the legislation to prohibit cities from banning bags, Oertle said, “It appears we went through all this controversy for – maybe – nothing.”

In Tempe, Kuby said she’s still considering what a ban would look like. But she said customers should be bringing reusable bags to the store.

Another possibility, she said, is also charging 10 cents for each paper bag to further encourage the use of reusable bags.

“I’m not perfect in this regard at all. I’m constantly forgetting bags,” Kuby said. “But I know if there was a 10-cent charge on a bag I’d be more likely to bring my bag into the store.”

As for the proposal before the Legislature, Kuby said it wouldn’t be good for Arizona.

“I don’t think the state wants to be involved with regulating trash and waste management,” she said. “This is usually a role for the cities and not for the state.”