News Story

Bill Would Repeal State Prohibition Of Local Bans On Grocery Bags

Cities could also ban or tax cloth, paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum, glass or other ‘auxiliary containers’

In California, the District of Columbia and some other places, local grocers are required to charge people a five-cent fee for each grocery bag. Since around 2007, several of America’s larger cities and states have enacted taxes or bans on “single-use” bags and certain other bags and containers. A recent bill introduced in the Michigan Senate would, if enacted, allow local governments to resume such restrictions and levies.

In 2016 Michigan lawmakers passed a law prohibiting municipalities from banning or taxing plastic grocery bags and certain other “auxiliary containers.” Now a new measure, Senate Bill 975, introduced by State Sen. Jeff Irwin, proposes to repeal that law. Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, has opposed the 2016 law from the start, due to its placing limits on what local governments may do.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, bag bans in Massachusetts, Oregon and Maine have been suspended, with public health concerns cited as the reason. Lawmakers in many places have also enacted bans on reusable cloth bags in grocery and retail stores, citing their potential to spread the virus.

Since the first plastic bag bans in America were implemented by San Francisco and several other communities in 2007, some researchers have expressed doubts about them. In a 2018 essay, “Persecuting Plastic Bags,” E. Frank Stephenson, professor of economics at Berry College, describes the findings of two experts who looked at the health effects of the bans:

To analyze the potential health effects of banning single-use bags, Klick and Wright (2012) examined San Francisco’s 2007 bag ban. They found that San Francisco’s emergency room admissions for E. coli illnesses increased by about one-fourth relative to other counties when the county imposed its bag ban in October 2007. They also document increases in E. coli–related emergency department visits following bag bans in the cities of Palo Alto, Malibu, and Fairfax, and a 46 percent increase in deaths attributable to foodborne illnesses.

As consumers sought replacements for plastic bags, many turned to reusable cloth or plastic bags, which can become contaminated after repeated use.

Irwin’s bill would let counties, townships, cities and villages ban or tax plastic grocery bags, as well as all “auxiliary containers” of any material and type. Paper bags, plastic cups, plastic foam clamshells and even glass bottles could be prohibited or subject to local levies.

Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the bill sends mixed messages, noting it was introduced “on the same day that Gov. Whitmer extended her COVID-19 emergency order to July 19.”

Bag-ban supporters call plastic grocery bags single-use plastics. But research – and a survey of most American home kitchens – suggests the bags are frequently reused. Skaidra Smith-Heisters, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, wrote: “The vast majority of people reuse ‘single-use’ plastic bags for household tasks like bagging garbage and cleaning up messes. Ireland’s plastic bag tax, initiated in 2002 … virtually eliminated the use of the targeted bags but also resulted in a 77 percent increase in the sale of kitchen garbage bags.”

Michigan’s retailers oppose repealing the ban on local bag-bans.

“We’ve seen the challenges local regulations on commerce create in other states and would not want to replicate that here,” said Amy Drumm, vice president for government affairs at the Michigan Retailers Association. She added, “There is simply no way we could ban single use plastics right now with the concerns highlighted from the possible spread of COVID-19 or similar viruses in the future.”