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Austin's plastic bag ban likely trashed after new court ruling

Austin's plastic bag ban likely trashed after new court ruling

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

Nearly five years after Austin's plastic bag ban went into effect, a new ruling by Texas' highest court could trash the ordinance. In an early morning decision on June 22, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting a similar plastic bag ban in Laredo, a decision which may directly impact Austin. 

Like Austin, the Laredo ordinance, passed in 2014 and implemented a year later, made 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. 

Rather than tackle "economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns," the court instead 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," writes 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 side with the Laredo Merchants Association, thus dealing a collective blow to city-mandated ordinances like the one in Austin. 

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

Instead, he punts 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."