Texas High Court Strikes Down Local Bag Bans

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas Supreme Court on Friday upheld an appeals court ruling that disallows local governments from banning single-use plastic bags, finding that state law bars ordinances restricting the sale or use of containers.

Laredo and Austin are just two of at least 10 Texas cities that have instituted such bag bans.

Laredo’s 2014 ordinance, adopted for anti-littering purposes, would have punished businesses that provided customers with single-use plastic or paper bags with a $2,000 fine per violation.

The Texas Supreme Court said the rule violates the 1993 Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, which bars local ordinances that “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

According to the court’s opinion, authored by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, this section of Texas Health and Safety Code — and the absence of state law declaring bag bans an authorized method of regulating waste — means Laredo’s ordinance was an overreach.

“We must take statutes as they are written,” Hecht wrote, “and the one before us is written quite clearly. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”

In a statement released Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton agreed with the court, and warned cities of future legal action.

“Municipalities violate the law when they unlawfully pass the burden of solid waste management to citizens and retailers through illegal bag bans,” Paxton said. “I expect the ruling will be used to invalidate any other illegal bag bans statewide.”

Laredo intended for the ordinance to take effect in 2015, but the Laredo Merchants Association filed suit just before the ban took effect. A district judge sided with the city then, but the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Laredo businesses last year. Oral arguments were heard in the Texas Supreme Court in January.

A concurring opinion, written by Justice Eva Guzman and joined by Justice Debra Lehrmann, urged legislators to take action on the issue.

“These complex public policy determinations have important ramifications for the environmental legacy the next generation will inherit,” Guzman wrote. ”And allowing plastic debris — bags, Styrofoam cups, water bottles, and similar pollutants — to migrate unchecked into the environment carries grave consequences that must not be ignored.”

Guzman’s concurrence highlighted the particular dangers of single-use plastic bags.

“They clog our landfills, impede our recycling efforts, kill domestic animals and wildlife (in excruciating ways), hamper flood control efforts, sully our seas, and stain our vistas,” she said.

Guzman asked lawmakers to create uniform regulations to address these issues.

Robin Schneider, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Campaign for the Environment, held a press event on Friday at the Texas Supreme Court in light of the ruling.

“Texas Campaign for the Environment will work with other concerned Texans to change state law and restore the ability of local governments to determine the best way to address problems with single-use bags in their communities,” she said in a statement.

HB 3482 is a Texas bill that would have amended the 1993 act to include an exemption for single-use plastic bags. It was scheduled for a vote last year, but the Legislature couldn’t hear it before deadline. Activists are now asking lawmakers to consider the proposal when they meet for the 86th legislative session on Jan. 8, 2019.

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