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Texas Supreme Court strikes down single-use plastic bag ordinances

Texas Supreme Court strikes down single-use plastic bag ordinances

plastic grocery bag
Austin's plastic bag ban is in jeopardy. Photo by Lion's Deal

A new ruling by Texas' highest court could trash bans against plastic bags across the state.

In an early-morning decision on June 22, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting a plastic bag ban in Laredo.

The Laredo ordinance passed in 2014 and was implemented a year later, making it illegal for commercial establishments "to provide or sell certain plastic or paper 'checkout bags' to customers," with violators facing up to $2,000 in fines.

Shortly before it was implemented, the Laredo Merchants Association sued the city, saying it violated the Texas Constitution.

The city of Austin has a bag ban that is now in peril. The city of Dallas passed a plastic bag law in January 2015 that exacted a 5-cent fee — one that almost immediately provoked a lawsuit from plastic bag manufacturers. It was repealed in June 2015.

The court, rather than addressing "economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns," tackled semantics, analyzing if the language of the ordinance was a violation of Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act.

"The Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act ('the Act') provides that '[a] local government ... may not adopt an ordinance ... to ... 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.' The sharply contested issue here is whether the Act preempts, and thus invalidates, a local antilitter ordinance prohibiting merchants from providing 'single use' plastic and paper bags to customers for point-of-sale purchases," wrote Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht in his opinion.

After breaking down the ordinance virtually word by word (the opinion even attempts to define "solid waste" and "bag"), the justices eventually sided with the Laredo Merchants Association, thus dealing a collective blow to city-mandated ordinances. 

"Both sides of the debate ... assert public-policy arguments raising economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns. But those arguments are not ours to resolve," wrote Hecht.

Instead, he punted that argument back to the legislature, which in 2017 filed a bill to ban the plastic ban across the state. Governor Greg Abbott has also come out against bag bans, saying they lead to the "California-ization of Texas."