PHOENIX >> Vexed by the litter caught in cactus and shrubs, one Arizona city banned plastic bags on Earth Day last year. Two others considered similar bans as part of a growing trend around the country to outlaw the single-use of plastic bags at checkout counters.
Those efforts are now in limbo after Arizona lawmakers voted this month to make it illegal for cities to impose bag bans, angering municipalities over what they see as heavy-handed action by the state.
It’s a clash that has grown more intense as lawmakers here have taken an aggressive approach in recent years in curtailing the role of local government. Arizona cities are forbidden from hiking minimum wages and enacting taxes or regulations on firearms. The same law that made it illegal for cities to ban plastic bags also applied similar restrictions on Styrofoam containers and other disposable products. And it included a requirement blocking cities from requiring business owners to report energy usage consumption, something some municipalities were considering in order to encourage energy-efficiency in buildings.
Some local officials note the irony: While the conservative Arizona Legislature scoffs at the federal government, they say state lawmakers are doing the same thing to cities and towns — especially those that tend to lean liberal.
“Whenever it’s convenient for the GOP they push for more independence from the feds and at the same time they are curbing the cities’ abilities to govern,” said Eva Putzova, a Flagstaff City Council member.
Other conservative states are making similar moves to ban plastic bag bans. Florida already has made it illegal for municipalities to ban plastic bags, and lawmakers are considering similar legislation in Missouri and Texas, said Jennifer Schultz, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That’s in contrast to Arizona’s neighbor to the west, California, where lawmakers enacted a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags following the lead of more than 100 cities and counties that outlawed the bags. Business groups are trying to overturn the law and have collected enough signatures to put the referendum on the 2016 ballot. The law is on hold until the dispute gets resolved.
The Arizona bill to outlaw bag bans was backed by the Arizona Retailers Association and the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, which represents brands including Safeway, Kroger, Circle K and QuickTrip. Tim McCabe, president of Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, said the statewide ban makes it easier for customers who may be confused by a patchwork of city regulations.
“We think the more cities and towns can push awareness programs, the more recycling, the less bags will be used,” McCabe said.
Lawmakers who supported the legislation said banning plastic bags wasn’t necessary. Republican Sen. John Kavanagh, who represents the city of Fountain Hills east of Phoenix, said plastic and Styrofoam are cheaper and more sanitary than paper products.
“We really don’t need to do this in Arizona because we don’t have the crisis in landfills and litter that other areas do,” he said.
Though the cities of Flagstaff and Tempe have since dropped their proposals to ban plastic bags, they are considering taking legal action against the state.
Lauren Kuby, a city council member in Tempe, which is home to Arizona State University, sees the dispute over bags as part of a bigger fight as cities like hers attempt to take proactive stances on a range of issues, only to be stymied by a conservative Legislature.
“From our point of view cities are the incubators of innovations,” she said. “In this instance, they are interfering with local decision making.”
Kavanagh said he sees no contradictions. Municipalities exist because of state government, he said.
“The states are the source of all authority both at the federal level and at the local level,” Kavanagh said. “And having containers and bags for food and groceries that aren’t contaminated with bacteria and viruses is something the state finds important.”
Pam Rodrigues, who owns an arts and antique store in the southern Arizona mountain town of Bisbee, said her business saved more than $500 last year by not buying plastic bags since the city’s bag ban went into effect.
“The feedback from my customers is overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” she said.
Plastic bags have nearly disappeared from the city’s waste stream since the ban began, said Andy Haratyk, Bisbee’s public works manager.
For now, Bisbee continues to enforce the ban, but only until July when the state law goes into effect.
“I wish we would act the way the state Legislature did and say ‘I don’t care what you voted on. We are going to do it anyway,'” Haratyk said. “Now everybody will go back to their single-use plastic bags and they’ll be all over the place just like they were.”