House panel hears testimony on whether to remove ban on local regulation of plastic bags ⋆

The House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee met on Thursday to hear testimony on bills that would restore local governments’ ability to regulate plastic bags and other reusable or single-use containers. 

State Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield) — whose House Bill 4359 would repeal a 2016 law preempting local regulations of “certain containers” including bags, cups, bottles or other packaging — said the issue was one of local control.

“To be clear, this bill does not require any communities to ban plastic bags or auxiliary containers. It merely gives folks the options to,” Brabec said. 

In her testimony Brabec noted that a number of other states permit local governments to enforce bans and fees on plastic bags, including Illinois. 

Ten states have implemented statewide bans on plastic bags: New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey and California. 

“Reducing bags can mitigate harmful impacts on our oceans, rivers, lakes, forests and wildlife that inhabit them. It can also relieve pressure on landfills and waste management and municipalities should be given the opportunity to regulate the use of certain plastics should they wish to,” Brabec said. 

As a member of the Washtenaw County Commission in 2016, Brabec and other commissioners voted 6-2 to implement a 10-cent fee for each paper or plastic bag a customer received in a big box store. The collected fee would be split with 80% supporting the county’s solid waste management program plan, and retailers retaining the remaining 20% to offer educational resources to employees and the public on the benefits of reusable shopping bags, and the proper management and recycling of disposable bags. The plan also included an exemption from the fee for individuals receiving assistance.

Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights), at the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee on Sept. 28, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

However, the 2016 state law preempting localities from regulating auxiliary containers  meant local officials had to give up on the program, Brabec said.

John Fournier, deputy city administrator for the city of Ann Arbor, testified alongside Brabec. Forunier highlighted the issue that plastic bags can cause for local communities. 

“They do not break down, dissolve, they do not biodegrade. They gather and accumulate in our parks and streams and, simply put, they cause problems for us. They are intended to be disposed of and they are disposed of, and they end up accumulating in natural spaces and in our utility structure,” Fournier said. 

As extreme weather worsens in Michigan, the stormwater infrastructure in Michigan communities is critical and must operate very well, Fournier said. 

However, plastic bags can be washed into storm drains and clog them, leading to flooding, property damage and property loss, Fournier said. 

Fournier also noted that more than 500 local plastic bag ordinances have been adopted across the country alongside statewide bans where retailers have adjusted. 

“We can do that here in Michigan, too,” Fournier said.

“We don’t want to create, you know, a patchwork of regulations across the state but the reality is, is that you know, zoning laws differ from municipality to municipality. Health regulations differ. Development standards differ. Transportation standards differ,” Fournier said. “Plastic bags should be no different than any of these other issues.”

Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) expressed concerns about how allowing communities to place regulations on containers other than plastic bags may impact businesses.

Brabec responded saying that while the language around the regulations is broad, bans on things like plastic straws and single-use containers have not been broadly adopted across the country. 

Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford) pressed Brabec and Fournier on the economic impacts of plastic bag fees, asking how increasing the cost of groceries benefits local economies. 

Brabec said the regulations do not increase the actual cost of groceries and that it is up to an individual whether they will pay the fee on bags, or bring reusable bags. Brabec also said it would be up to communities to decide if they want to impose a fee on disposable bags or not. 

Members of the Sierra Club, Michigan League of Conservation Voters and Michigan Environmental Council testified in support of the bills, outlining the benefits local regulations on plastic bags could bring, and pointing out how plastic pollution is impacting the state’s natural resources and public health. 

Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford) at the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee on Sept. 28, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

“Michigan has a $22.8 billion tourism outdoor recreation industry that is at risk due to increasing levels of plastic pollution in our Great Lakes, rivers streams,” said Tim Minotas, deputy legislative and political coordinator for Sierra Club Michigan “More than 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the Great Lakes every year, really causing tremendous strain on human animal and ecosystem health.”

Environmental advocates also raised concerns about the health impacts of plastic pollution. 

“There are a lot of issues that we’re still learning about and researching about and how it affects human health. But as described earlier as well, plastic is an indestructible material. It does not biodegrade, it does not decompose. It breaks apart over time, into smaller and smaller pieces known as micro plastics and nano plastics,” said Samantha Pickering, public health and environmental health policy coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Council. 

Humans are then exposed to those plastics through the air, water, and a variety of foods, Pickering said. 

“It’s an incredibly pervasive material. It’s something that not only harms the aquatic animals, but it’s also very disruptive to our health, as well. And it’s a very critical emerging public health concern as it’s been found in the human bloodstream, vital organs and even the placenta of fetuses,” Pickering said. 

When Schriver asked how raising the cost of groceries will help the life of a fetus in the womb, he was reprimanded by committee Chair Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia).

“With all due respect, you’ve asked that question before and it’s already been answered. This is not levying a tax. Local governments can decide if they want to create a tax or not. This does not require them to.”

Schriver was instructed to find a new question before Pohutsky opted to move forward.

Rep. David Prestin (R-Cedar River) shared concerns that local bans on auxiliary containers would negatively impact organizations like Meals On Wheels, which rely on containers to safely store ready-to-eat food.

However, Charlotte Jameson, Michigan Environmental Council’s chief policy officer, said this was an example of conversations localities could be having if the bills were to pass. 

“I hear you, but I think those are also things that local governments can grapple with,” Jameson said.

Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield) testifies in front of the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee alongside Ann Arbor Deputy City Administrator John Fournier. | Kyle Davidson

The committee also heard testimony from manufacturing, retail and restaurant organizations opposed to the bill, citing concerns over logistics, cost and whether local regulations would discourage businesses from operating in certain areas. 

John McNamara, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said facing potentially having different container standards at various restaurant locations would be an “administrative nightmare” for multi-restaurant operators and that it would not work for the industry. 

However, the Michigan Retailers Association opposed the bill on the ground that local government was not the proper venue for these regulations.

“Not every local community is equipped or prepared to go through the same thorough vetting process state legislation receives because these policies are complex. The state, not local units of government, is in the best position to consider regulations on the subject matter,” said Amy Drumm, senior vice president of  government affairs for the association.

Caroline Liethen, director of environmental and regulatory policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, argued that repealing the 2016 preemption would allow local governments to ban Michigan-made products. 

Liethen testified alongside AnnMarie Treglia of Dart Container, a food container manufacturer, who shared concerns that local bans on their products would force hard decisions on employee hiring, retention, whether to invest in the company, alongside concerns of potential plant closures.

Pohutsky said the committee will take up the issue again in the future. 



authored by Kyle Davidson
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