“Paper or plastic?” isn’t going away anytime soon in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation March 30 protecting plastic bags from community bans. AB 730 prohibits local governments from regulating the commercial use of plastic bags or other “auxiliary containers” such a cups, bottles or other packaging.
The measure also prohibits local governments from enacting measures that attach a fee or surcharge on plastic bags.
There are no communities in Wisconsin with such bans; Eau Claire in 2013 considered a measure intended to reduce the use of plastic bags.
However, more than 100 communities in other states have enacted restrictions on single-use plastic bags, considered a major source of global pollution. In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to adopt a ban.
Additionally, Hawaii adopted statewide restrictions in 2012 and California lawmakers passed restrictions in 2014, which are on hold pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November.
The goal with the restrictions is to decrease trash and litter, as well as reduce the use of the natural resources required to manufacture the bags, which generally are made from fossil fuels.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and bags used for an average of 12 minutes before they get discarded.
About 2.2 billion pounds of fossil fuel and 3.9 billion gallons of fresh water are needed to produce the 100 billion plastic bags annually used in the United States, according to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a group based in New York that’s been a leader on the ecology side of the issue. The manufacturing process creates about a billion pounds of solid waste each year and produces 2.7 million tons of CO2.
At Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group that conducts regular cleanups of waterways, activists emphasize that the bags and other petroleum-based plastics never really break down — thus, about every square mile of ocean is polluted with about 46,000 pieces plastic.
The plastic pollution contributes to flooding and threatens wildlife, as animals ingest or become entangled in the materials.
Despite the environmental concerns with plastic bags, protecting their use and challenging bans is big business.
A force behind the “preemption” bills such as the one signed by Walker is the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, the national organization of legislators and businesses that promotes corporate interests and conservative policies.
Also, an offshoot of ALEC, the American City County Exchange, adopted a resolution encouraging local elected officials to not regulate single-use containers and packaging, “such as reusable bags, disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, extruded polystyrene, or similar materials.”
ALEC’s campaign against plastic bag bans is backed by plastic manufacturers and a trade group, the National Federation of Independent Business, which has had funding from the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
Florida banned plastic bag bans in 2008. Missouri and Arizona passed bag bans last year, but Arizona’s legislation faces a legal challenge.
In Wisconsin, these entities lobbied for the ban on bans: Alliance of Wisconsin Retailers, American Chemistry Council, American Progressive Bag Alliance, Koch Companies Public Sector, Kwik Trip, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Midwest Food Processors Association, Wisconsin Beverage Association, National Federation of Independent Business, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Grocers Association , Wisconsin Independent Businesses Inc., Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Paper Council, Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Associates and Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
These groups that opposed the legislation: Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Dane County Cities and Villages Association, Clean Wisconsin, Dane County, the City of Milwaukee and the City of Madison.
More than 100 municipalities have enacted restrictions aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of single-use plastic bags. Hawaii and California have statewide restrictions, but California’s law is on hold.
Alaska: 2 municipalities
California: 88 municipalities
Colorado: 5 municipalities
Connecticut: 1 municipality
District of Columbia: 1 municipality
Iowa: 1 municipality
Maine: 1 municipality
Maryland: 21 municipalities
Massachusetts: 8 municipalities
New Mexico: 1 municipality
New York: 5 municipalities
North Carolina: 9 municipalities
Oregon: 3 municipalities
Texas: 9 municipalities
Rhode Island: 1 municipality
Washington: 11 municipalities
Source: Surfrider Foundation
Did you know?
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban single-use plastic bags, which can exacerbate flooding.
Spring cleaning on the river
Milwaukee Riverkeeper is organizing clean up crews to remove litter and debris from 50 sites in the Milwaukee River basin. The annual Spring River Cleanup takes place April 23, the day after Earth Day.
Each year, thousands of volunteers remove tons of trash from the waterways in the Greater Milwaukee area. In 2015, about 3,500 volunteers hauled away 70,000 pounds of trash.
For more information or to register, go online to Milwaukee Riverkeeper at milwaukeeriverkeeper.org.