Cities can’t ban plastic bags, Texas Supreme Court decides

Texas

LAREDO, Texas (KXAN) — The city of Laredo is not allowed to ban plastic bags, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday. The decision could have wide-ranging effects in cities across Texas, including Austin, that have passed ordinances that no longer allow businesses to use plastic bags.

The Supreme Court cited the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, a state law that says “[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 justices wrote in their opinion that the law is clear, and local ordinances cannot trump it.

“We must take the statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote.

Laredo had passed an ordinance in 2014 banning plastic bags in order to reduce the amount of waste that ended up on the streets and creeks, as well as landfills. The Laredo Merchants Association sued, and while the initial court said the city could have a bag ban, an appeals court said it could not.

The city tried to argue that plastic, disposable bags did not fall under the definition of a “container or package,” but the Supreme Court decided it did. Since banning bags isn’t outlined in state law as a manner in which a city can regulate those containers and packages, Laredo and other cities can’t create ordinances to ban bags. 

The decision is specific to the bag ban in Laredo, but it likely opens the door for legal challenges to bag bans in Austin and other cities which could cite the Supreme Court ruling that they are illegal.

Austin implemented its bag ban in 2013. A 2015 city-commissioned study found the number of thin plastic bags decreased since the ban took effect; however, the city found more reusable paper and thicker plastic bags in landfills. 

If cities wanted to keep or create bag bans from here on out, they would have to lobby lawmakers to create a new state law. That could be tricky because of the legislature’s conservative makeup and because Gov. Greg Abbott has criticized bag bans in the past, saying they’re an unnecessary regulation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the court’s ruling saying he hopes Austin will “voluntarily bring their ordinances into compliance with the state law.” 

A spokesperson for the city of Austin says the City Law Department is reviewing the decision to see how it may affect Austin. The bag ordinance “has served as a model for engaging stakeholders to develop effective local legislation,” the city’s statement said.

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