Bill banning city prohibitions on plastics throws home rule, environment out, representatives say

Senate Bill 493 heads to governor after legislative approval

By: - March 25, 2022 1:59 pm

Rep. Rui Xu cautioned legislators not to act on conversations of city task forces alone and allow municipalities to address the potential environmental ramifications of plastic bags and other containers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Some Kansas representatives say a prohibition recently approved by the Legislature on municipalities restricting plastic items tramples on local control and will cause issues for ecosystems across the state.

Senate Bill 493 would prohibit restrictions and taxes on bags, cups, containers, as well as any other packaging made of plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminum, among others. Backers say the measure will ensure there is a uniform policy surrounding these containers and support local businesses.

But opponents said the bill would not address the accumulation of trash accumulated from these items. Even supporters of the bill did not dispute the negative effect plastic bags have on the environment, said Rep. Rui Xu.

“They take 400 years to decompose. They litter our roadways. They lit our waterways,” the Westwood Democrat said Tuesday on the House floor. “This is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. What is good for the individual in the moment might not be good for the collective for our environment.”

Representatives signed off on the measure 74 to 48 Thursday, exactly a month after the Senate voted in favor, 27 to 13. The bill heads to Gov. Laura Kelly for consideration and appears to lack support in the House to overturn a veto.

Rep. Pat Proctor, a Fort Leavenworth Republican and restaurant owner, said the measure would provide businesses facing uncertain times peace of mind by ensuring access to plastic bags would not become a future supply chain issue.

“Every commodity has doubled in price,” Proctor said of being a restaurant owner. “Now what you’re going to do in these municipalities is you’re going to put this additional cost on restaurants where they must use paper boxes. What you’re doing is you’re pricing restaurants out of doing business.”

While some areas such as Wichita may be considering a ban on plastic bags, Xu noted these are merely task force conversations and nothing official has been decided. Enacting something based on talks is not good practice, he said.

Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, said municipalities were considering these bans because the state government is doing too little to address the environmental issues facing Kansas and the world.

“We were facing a very, very serious environmental crisis, and we are doing nothing,” Highberger said. “Even though I wouldn’t necessarily support, personally, a ban like this, I think my city government certainly ought to have the right to consider enacting one.

Rep. Brad Ralph, a Dodge City Republican, said he did not much care one way or another about plastic bags, but he did take issue with such a clear breach of home rule. He told legislators they ought to take notice of the desire Kansans have expressed to maintain local control and set policies for their own community.

Two or three municipalities enacting bans on plastic containers do not constitute enough of a patchwork to abandon a constitutional principle, Ralph said.

“The idea that we would preemptively not trust local government on its face tells us we can’t do this,” Ralph said. “The people in the state of Kansas told us directly and specifically in this constitution that we must trust them, and we must give them the largest measure of self-government.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.