Oklahoma moves to stop towns from fees, bans on plastic bags
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers are considering legislation to prevent cities and towns from imposing a fee on single-use plastic and paper bags, a measure that officials in one Oklahoma community say encroaches on their search for an innovative way to protect the environment from the problems of carelessly discarded bags.
Oklahoma is one of at least five states where lawmakers are considering pre-empting local governments from taxing or banning plastic bags that are used to carry everything from groceries to clothing and cosmetics, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website. Eleven other states, including Texas, Arizona and Florida, already have pre-emptions laws in place, the NCSL said.
The Oklahoma measure was proposed as leaders in Norman, about 17 miles (28 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City, consider imposing a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags as city leaders explore ways limit a leading source of litter and pollution.
Mayor-elect Breea Clark, a member of the Norman City Council, said the city leads the state in participation in curbside recycling but that recyclers statewide are refusing to accept single-use plastic bags because they get stuck in the recycling equipment.
"Now that we can't recycle them, we have to throw them away. They're everywhere," Clark said. She said many wind up in nearby Lake Thunderbird, the city's main source of drinking water.
Clark said imposing a fee on single-use bags offers "an effective way to change consumer habits." In Boulder, Colorado, where a 10-cent fee was imposed on plastic bags in 2012, city officials say plastic bag usage declined 70 percent.
But allowing hundreds of Oklahoma cities and towns adopt their own guidelines would create a hodgepodge of rules that would make buying food and beverages more costly and inconvenient and create compliance problems for manufacturers and retailers, said Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, the pre-emption bill's author.
"We've already started to see some municipalities do some taxation of different plastics," Leewright said. "I think that's very regressive on raising food costs."
Leewright's bill applies to bags, cups, packages, containers and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass. It's supported by the Oklahoma Coalition for Uniformity of Commerce, a coalition of 16 retail, manufacturing and business groups that claims municipal bag ordinances will reduce consumer choice and increase the cost of groceries and packaged food.
"All of that is really an added burden to our retailers," said Kiley Raper, CEO of the Oklahoma Retail Merchants Association.
"We're not opposing a fee or any kind of movement to be more environmentally responsible," Raper said. "We have a lot of members who operate in multiple localities across our state and being able to accommodate all of those different rules in different places is very, very complicated."
Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs for QuikTrip, a Tulsa-based chain of convenience stores that operates 750 stores in 11 states, said lack of uniformity in local regulations "can make things a little more difficult."
"We just want uniformity," Thornbrugh said. "I get what Norman's doing. And I understand those who have environmental concerns — count us in. But if you're going to do it, do it uniformly."
Norman is the only community in Oklahoma that's considering a fee on single-use bags although plastic-bag pollution is a problem statewide, even in rural Oklahoma communities, said Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League.
"They joke that that's the new tumbleweed, they blow everywhere," Fina said. But lawmakers "have proposed nothing to help with the issue."
"They need to not pre-empt cities and let us do what we do best, and that is handle these kinds of issues," Fina said.
Sen. Mary Boren, who voted against the pre-emption bill, said Norman's program could be a statewide pilot project to achieve the uniformity merchants say they want.
"We're very aware of the environmental crisis we face," said Boren, D-Norman. "This bill would just chill that innovative spirit that we have."