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A Texas Supreme Court Ruling Against Laredo Could Invalidate Austin's Bag Ban

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled Laredo can't ban the use of single-use bags. At issue was whether the city could ban bags under the state law regulating so-called solid waste management.

The court ruled Laredo's ban was at odds with state law, but urged the legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future. The City of Austin says it's looking at how the court's ruling will affect its bag ban, which was enacted in 2013.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “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.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven't effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Eva Guzman acknowledge the environmental impact of single-use bags and called for legislative action.

"I urge the Legislature to take direct ameliorative action ... [and] create a specific exception to preemption of local control," Guzman wrote. "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."

Cities argued they have good reason to limit the availability of single-use plastic bags. They say “solid waste management” refers to regulating the stream of garbage heading to a landfill, and that’s not what these bans are about.

“The town of Fort Stockton is a pretty conservative community, but the plastic bags were getting in the cattle feeders and choking the cows,” said Bennett Sandlin, head of the Texas Municipal League, which supports the City of Laredo in the case.

South Padre Island enacted a ban “because the bags had gotten in the surf, damaging marine wildlife and it also hurt tourism,” he said.

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helps reduce litter, saves wildlife and stops bags from clogging up storm drains.

“There was a 90 percent reduction in plastic bags in the first six months [of the ordinance] that we saw in our parks, trails and open spaces,” said Gena McKinley, manager of the Strategic Initiatives Division for Austin Resource Recovery.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argued the bans in 11 cities in Texas superceded their capacity for local control, lauded the court's decision in a statement this morning.

"This ruling sends the unambiguous message to all local jurisdictions in Texas that they do not get to simply ignore laws they don’t agree with," Paxton wrote.

For now, it seems the City of Austin is still in a holding pattern after the ruling. In a statement to KUT, Spokesperson Andy Tate said the city is "reviewing this decision to determine how it might impact Austin’s regulations."

Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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