Brownsville littered with plastic bags again after ordinance repealed

A discarded plastic shopping bag rolls in the wind Monday along the Resaca de la Palma Hike and Bike Trail off Ruben Torres Boulevard in Brownsville. In 2010, Brownsville enacted the first plastic-bag ordinance in Texas, but the ordinance and other similar bans were overturned by the Texas Supreme Court last year. (Ryan Henry | The Brownsville Herald)

If you’re curious about the impact, nine months on, of the city’s repeal of its single-use plastic bag ordinance after the Texas Supreme Court ruled such ordinances illegal, take a look out the window.

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

The flimsy bags that virtually disappeared from the cityscape as a result of the ordinance are making a comeback, though whether the problem becomes as bad as it was before remains to be seen.

When Brownsville enacted the state’s first plastic-bag ordinance in January 2010, the lightweight sacks were everywhere: caught in tree branches and along fence lines, clogging resacas and stormwater drains. The Brownsville Public Utility Board reported finding large numbers of the bags during the course of resaca restoration, and noted that the bags can harm resaca wildlife.

The city’s ordinance prohibited free distribution of plastic bags at grocery store points-of-sale and other retail businesses, though customers were able to get unlimited plastic bags for a $1 fee per transaction. The city dropped the fee in 2017 after Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, filed suit.

Between 2011 and 2017 the fee generated more than $4 million, funds that went toward the purchase of sanitation trucks, street sweepers and other equipment, according to the city.

The death knell for bag ordinances in Brownsville and the several other Texas cities that passed them, including South Padre Island, was last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo. Justices sided with the plaintiff in interpreting Laredo’s ordinance as being in violation of state law, which forbids any rule to “prohibit, restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The Laredo Merchants Association did not and does not exist except as the name of the plaintiff in the lawsuit, though internet searches of the name formerly led to the website of the Empower Texans political action committee.

Following the Supreme Court decision, Paxton declared all bag ordinances in the state unenforceable. While he framed the issue as being all about the primacy of state law over local ordinances, it’s also true that the lobbying group American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag manufacturing industry, has spent considerable resources successfully challenging bag ordinances and pushing preemptive anti-bag-ban legislation in Texas and other states.

APBA was founded in 2005 and originally was housed within the American Chemistry Council, according to the Sierra Club.

Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, who pushed hard for the city’s bag ordinance in the beginning, said it breaks her heart to see plastic bags littering the city and few shoppers bothering to bring reusable bags to the store anymore.

“It’s sad,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people trying to get in touch with me to see if we’re going to fight it.”

Timmer said the city was very supportive in helping get the ordinance passed, though she was disappointed when commissioners voted to repeal it immediately after Paxton’s pronouncement without making a stand.

Andrew Dobbs, legislative director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said that in Austin, which also had a bag ordinance, plastic bags haven’t come roaring back after the repeal ala Brownsville and Laredo.

“Here in Austin, most of the big retailers have not brought the bags back,” he said. “They’re hidden away somewhere and you have to ask for them.”

California and New York have banned single-use plastic bags, and Hawaii has a de facto ban. Major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have passed bag bans, while Boulder, Colo., New York City, Portland, Maine, and Washington D.C. are among the cities with a combination of bans and fees on bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, China, Israel, Morocco, South Africa and The Netherlands are among several other countries that have followed suit. New Zealand initiated a one-year phase-out of plastic bags last year.

Dobbs predicted the tide in the United States will turn against plastic bags just as it did, eventually, against the cigarette industry, though it’s not likely to happen soon.

“Unfortunately it’s going to be a very long-term fight to be able to get back to where we need to be,” he said. “Brownsville was leading the way. We may be one of the last ones when we get it back. But the die is cast historically. Single-use plastics bags are going to be going away sooner or later. It’s just too bad we didn’t get to keep leading on that issue.”