Proposal to ban cities from banning plastic bags pits Sierra Club against Kansas Chamber

By: - February 18, 2022 2:42 pm

Zack Pistora, of the Sierra Club of Kansas, appears by video during a hearing on legislation to ban plastic bag bans. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora told lawmakers he could talk at length about the “big mess” plastic bags have created for aquatic ecosystems, landscape and infrastructure in Kansas.

But the real problem with Senate Bill 493, he said, is an assault on democracy.

The Kansas Chamber, manufacturers of plastic bags, and service industry representatives asked the Senate Commerce Committee to adopt the legislation, which would ban cities and counties in Kansas from restricting the use of plastic bags and containers.

Pistora said the bill is “disingenuous” because it doesn’t provide a way for communities to reduce the accumulation of trash caused by these products. He asked lawmakers to embrace the popular saying: “Don’t tread on me.”

“It’s a very conservative ethic where we got to be responsible and respectful of one another and not interfere with our ability to enjoy the benefits of life and self governance,” Pistora said. “Well, the single-use plastic trash is treading on the people of Kansas. It’s treading on our properties. It’s trash in our communities, our natural ecosystems, and it adds up to a deterioration of our wonderful home we call Kansas, socialized to the taxpayer.”

Kent Eckles appears by video on behalf of the Kansas Chamber in support of legislation that would prohibit cities and counties from restricting single-use plastics. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Kent Eckles, who appeared at the Thursday hearing on behalf of the Kansas Chamber, said businesses hope to avoid navigating “a hodgepodge of conflicting regulations or bans from one city or county to the next.” He said 22 other states have passed legislation similar to SB493.

The legislation would prohibit prohibitions, restrictions and taxes on a bag, cup, package, container, bottle, device or other packaging made of cloth, paper, plastic, foamed plastic, expanded plastic, cardboard, corrugated material, aluminum, glass, postconsumer recycled material or similar coated or laminated material.

The impetus for the bill, Eckles said, is the discussion in Wichita and other communities about banning single-use plastic bags, like the ones frequently used for groceries.

Zachary Taylor appears by video on behalf of plastic bag manufacturers. He says local bans on plastic bags do little to help the environment. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said those policies “end up hurting businesses without doing a whole lot for the environment.”

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said citizens who have concerns about trash building in their communities should be able to put together solutions “independent of what the polluters want.”

Holland told Eckles the Kansas Chamber also supported a deal in 2017 to bring a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant to Tonganoxie. The deal fell apart over protest from local residents.

“That was an ecological disaster that you were going to unleash on northeast Kansas and the Kansas River,” Holland said. “I kind of find it a little bit rich that you’re here talking today, once again, about basically advocating for polluters. At the end of the day, this to me looks like it smacks of regulation. It smacks of anti-consumerism. It’s anti-environment, obviously.”

Holland asked Taylor who his alliance represents. Taylor said it consists of manufacturers of plastic bags.

“So more polluters. OK,” Holland said.

Lori Lawrence, of Bag Free Wichita, said it was important for cities to maintain local control of regulations. The speed limits in Wichita are different from Hays, for instance, she said.

In Wichita, Lawrence said, the landfill is full, and the city has to pay to ship trash out of the county.

“We are dealing with an incredible amount of trash being the largest city in Kansas, and we really need to be able to put some limits on that,” Lawrence said.

Pistora said a survey found Wichita residents were willing to pay a small price for the reduction of plastic bags.

Pistora also questioned a claim by Taylor that plastic bags account for just 0.3% of landfill trash.

“I always appreciate hearing from other Zachs, but I’d be curious to the sources of his studies on litter,” Pistora said.

In Kansas, Pistora said, half of the litter is from plastic.

“We got more plastic bags than tumbleweeds in the state of Kansas,” Pistora said.

The last time he counted, Pistora said, he saw 39 plastic bags along the road between his house in Linwood and the Statehouse in Topeka.

“I didn’t even get into the environmental consequences,” Pistora said. “I’d be happy to talk about how these bags get used in 12 seconds, but don’t break down for 1,000 years or more.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.