Amid debate over whether plastic bag bans violate the state's health and safety laws, Dallas on Wednesday became the largest city in Texas to pass an ordinance restricting use of the bags.
The Dallas ordinance, which the City Council approved by a vote of 8-6, doesn't ban plastic bags outright. Rather, it limits their use by imposing a 5-cent-per-bag charge on retailers, which will receive 10 percent of the revenue. The rest will go to the city to spend on educating the public about the environmental hazards of plastic bags. The ordinance goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015.
Dallas joins nine other Texas cities that have enacted similar ordinances.
“We're trying to keep a cleaner city by putting a ban on the very thing that hangs on fences lines and trees, that's killing our wildlife and fish and clogging up our sewer systems,” said Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway. “It's a predator that is extremely hard to deal with.”
The vote came the last day for cities and groups to submit briefs on bag ordinances to the Texas attorney general's office, which has been asked to determine whether they violate the Texas Health and Safety Code. State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, wrote a letter earlier this month asking the AG to weigh in on a section of the code that says a municipality may not pass legislative restrictions or charge fees relating to the consumption of a “container or package” for waste management purposes.
The Texas Retailers Association, which opposes the bag ordinances, approached Flynn about writing the letter.
“It sure looks to us that the plain meaning of the statute’s language is that the state meant to stop local governments from adopting ordinances that prohibit or restrict the use of these bags,” Ronnie Volkening, the president and CEO of the Texas Retailers Association, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune earlier this month. “If the state Legislature enacted that language, then the cities are in fact engaging in an activity that they should not.”
Supporters of the ordinances say plastic bags harm the environment. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has been one of the most vocal supporters of the ordinances. “We want the attorney general to stay out of this issue altogether,” said Robin Schneider, the group's executive director.
The Texas Municipal League was the first to submit a brief to the attorney general’s office. The brief included a statement from state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, from 2011 in which he argued for local control over the issue.
“For the state to determine what a city’s problems are or solutions that it may have or may not have is a little bit of an overextension of the Legislature,” Seliger said.
Because the cities are responsible for supplying plastic bags, they should be able to determine if they wish to ban them, he said in an interview.
“They spend much more time as garbage than they do as carriers of groceries anyway,” Seliger added.
The Texas Municipal League argued in its brief that a plastic bag should not be classified as a “container” or a "package” — the two words specifically mentioned in the Heath and Safety Code.
“A plastic bag is not a container or a package, but merely the means by which a container or a package is transported,” the brief said.
Volkening said the most environmental position would be to encourage the recycling of plastic bags, not banning their use.
Besides Dallas, six other Texas cities, including San Antonio and Corpus Christi, have recently considered restrictions on plastic bags. Corpus Christi and Austin, whose city council voted in 2012 to ban plastic bags, said on Wednesday that they would submit briefs to the attorney general in support of the ordinances.