A bill giving the state sole authority to ban plastic containers, which has raised the ire of the Mobile City Council, may not pass both houses of the Alabama Legislature before the session ends, a local state representative said.
State Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, chairman of the state government committee, said House Bill 346 was given a favorable report out of the committee, despite the suggestion of an amendment from two Republican members and opposition from a host of coastal communities.
Pringle said he and Rep. Harry Shiver, R-Bay Minette, wanted to add an amendment to the bill that would’ve exempted Mobile and Baldwin counties from the legislation, but it didn’t move forward.
“In Mobile and Baldwin counties, it means a lot more to us,” he said. “We’re just more sensitive to it because of where we live. The rest of the state doesn’t care as much.”
It’s not an easy situation for the state, Pringle said, because while cities along the coast spend “too much” money to deal with litter “clogging up” area waterways, different rules throughout the state could adversely impact small business owners and franchisees.
For instance, a franchisee with multiple establishments in Mobile County might have to buy a different style of cup for a restaurant located in a city with a plastic ban than in cities without a ban.
“We don’t want to hurt small business,” Pringle said. “It all depends on whose ox is getting gored.”
Despite the momentum with which the legislation began to move through both houses of the legislature shortly after it was introduced, Pringle believes the bill will have a hard time passing because opposition to it has also gained momentum.
“The opposition kicked up Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “It came up pretty quick and pretty hard. They lit the place up.”
The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Nathanial Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, has been placed on the body’s calendar, which means it could be voted on. The Senate’s version of the bill, named SB244 and sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingson, R-Scottsboro, has already been placed on that body’s calendar.
Among those in opposition was the entire Mobile City Council, which sent a letter to the local legislative delegation following its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 9, asking its members to oppose the bill.
In the letter, the seven councilors say the city is “fighting an avalanche of litter,” most of which comes from the types of plastic containers defined in the bill.
“The litter poses a significant risk to our economy and our environment,” the letter continues. “These containers and materials ultimately find their way into our waterways, endangering the fragile gulf ecosystem and those animals — including humans — that depend on it.”
Councilman Joel Daves specifically mentioned the legislation during comments made at the meeting.
“We have a plastic container crisis in this city,” Daves said. “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to catch it all and it eventually ends up in the bay, where it’s an environmental catastrophe.”
Mobile Baykeeper Casi Callaway agrees with councilors and hopes the bill will die in the legislature. For Callaway, it’s a home rule issue where the state government is trying to take away the right of coastal communities to make decisions regarding their own people. It’s hard for her to comprehend a state as red as Alabama trying to give more control to a central government.
“I question why Montgomery would try to be the central repository for all decisions made at the local level,” Callaway said. “I don’t always understand the connection of being conservative and how we vote.”
In addition to her home rule concerns, Callaway worries the bill could impact slow moving local actions designed to better deal with plastic containers and the larger litter problem. For example, Callaway and Daves have been quietly working with a committee to find solutions that would have smaller impacts on businesses than an all-out ban on plastic bags and containers.
“There are no high hopes for a ban,” she said. “We’re looking at something that puts more of a burden on people to not use plastics, like a fee.”
In addition, Callaway has considered educating local waitstaff on having customers ask for a straw with a drink, rather than just putting them on a table. She has also been researching what other coastal communities are doing to address the issue. Through that work, Callaway has connected with Charleston Waterkeeper’s Andrew Wunderley, who has fought the South Carolina government on a similar prohibition of plastics ban in that state.
Issues in South Carolina
Charleston Waterkeeper has been working for years to help its surrounding coastal communities draft their own bans on single-use plastics, Wunderley said. This is despite the legislature’s efforts to place a prohibition on bans of plastic containers, similar to what Alabama is currently considering.
Bans in municipalities around Charleston began in 2015, he said, and have continued since. Shortly after the first bans began to be enacted, a bag lobby known as the American Progressive Bag Alliance, helped the state write a prohibition on bans, Wunderley said. Since that time, the state legislature has seen iterations of the same bill reintroduced, but it has not passed yet.
“It’s really close to getting an up-or-down vote this year,” Wunderley said Wednesday, April 10. “It has been passed out of a subcommittee and goes to a committee this week. We’re hopeful it won’t move forward anymore this year.”
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