Supreme Court of Texas Strikes Down Laredo's Bag Ban

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Last week the Supreme Court of Texas struck down Laredo’s plastic bag ban, finding that a statewide Solid Waste statute adopted in 1993 preempts the local bag ban. This much-anticipated ruling was especially disappointing for plastic pollution reduction advocates in light of the recent National Geographic cover story, #PlanetorPlastic, which drew global attention to the issue.

One positive take-away from the Texas case is the diversity of the amicus briefs submitted in favor of keeping the City of Laredo’s bag law in place. The briefs received included anglers, cattle ranchers, cotton ginners, surfers, conservationists, bass fishermen, grocers, cyclists, and other Texas cities.

Two of the Texas Supreme Court justices joined in a concurring opinion acknowledging the Solid Waste Statute preemption but calling upon the state legislature to take action to address plastic pollution. The concurring opinion cited several of the amicus briefs and even quoted a block of text from the cattle rancher brief describing the potential economic impacts of plastic bag litter on the cattle industry:

"If a cattle rancher has reason to know that a cattle ingested a plastic bag[,] the rancher has three options: send the  animal to slaughter earlier than planned to salvage some value from the animal, call a vet for examination and possible surgery,or wait to see what happens and maybe administer a laxative treatment. The economics of cattle ranching go against paying a veterinarian to examine and possibly perform surgery to remove plastic bags thought to be ingested by cattle. . . . Spending $500 or more on surgery that may or may not be needed is rarely a viable option for animals that aren’t worth much more than the veterinary bill."

These amicus briefs focused on the issue of plastic bags from a variety of perspectives. The justices ultimately felt that they were constrained to their broad reading of the word "container" to include plastic carryout bags and found preemption of Laredo's ban, but the color supplied by the briefs painted visceral real-life impacts of plastic bags in Texas.

Other cities and states would do well in forming similar unexpected alliances of a variety of groups with different specific reasons, including economic reasons, that they support reducing plastic bag consumption and litter. These alliances should be sought out from the beginning both in pushing for the adoption of plastic bag laws and in fighting to keep plastic bag laws in place.

Links to all amicus briefs in the case can be found here.

Jennie Romer