Texas Supreme Court Rules City's Plastic Bag Ban Violates State Law

Art by Tara Masterson Hally. Glasgow School of Art/Flickr

While governments both large and small across the world are increasingly committing to lower consumption of often un-recyclable, landfill-clogging and ocean-smothering single-use plastics, the state of Texas is taking a step backward.    

Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Laredo County’s plastic bag ban is invalid because a state law on waste disposal supersedes any local ordinance. The decision, which was met with an outcry by environmental groups and praise by Republican lawmakers, is expected to open the door for dissolution of the other dozen or so city and county-wide bans that have been implemented in the state in recent years, according to the Texas Tribune.

On behalf of the all-Republican court, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote, “[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."

"We must take the statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly.” 

They conclude that businesses retain the right to offer or refuse to offer plastic bags to their customers.

The ban was first challenged in 2015, when the Laredo Merchants Union contested that the statute in question – the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act – protected their right to use plastic bags. Their lawsuit against the city was brought to the Texas Supreme court in January of this year.

In the subsequent months of arguments, lawyers for the city of Laredo cited sustainability concerns over single-use bags and tried to define the Laredo ban as an anti-littering ordinance; yet the crux of their defense was that plastic bags do not count as containers or packaging, and thus the disposal law held no sway over their use.

Though they ultimately disagreed with that classification, and therefore had to rule in favor of the existing law, the justices were encouragingly opinionated about the fact that the plastic waste epidemic needs to be addressed – the judiciary simply isn’t the correct avenue for such policy change.

“Improperly discarded plastics have become a scourge on the environment and an economic drain,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote in a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Debra Lehrmann. “Though I join the Court’s opinion, I write separately to highlight the urgency of the matter. As a society, we are at the point where complacency has become complicity.”

“Having expressly reserved the power to make such decisions, the ball is sequestered in the Legislature’s court,” Guzman continued.

Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning – it will invite one.”

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