- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2020

As coastal cities ban plastic shopping bags and biodegradable straws thwart drinkers across the U.S., legislators in one red state in the American heartland are weighing a counterstrike — outlawing the banning of plastic bags and straws.

In South Dakota, a state Senate committee voted 4-2 Tuesday along party line for a bill that would bar municipalities from banning plastic bags and straws.

Supporters of the legislation admitted that no South Dakota city has joined the anti-plastic bandwagon. But they said they worry the crackdown on cheap and convenient polymers from Seattle to New York might seep into their state, which is starkly opposed to governmental overreach.

“We [residents of small towns] don’t get to participate in the ordinance of these towns,” said state Sen. John Wiik, a Republican who introduced Senate Bill 54 on Tuesday. “But we have very little choice but to participate in the commerce of these towns.”

Bans against straws and bags are more common in progressive states like California and enclaves like the District of Columbia. The bans seek to reduce the tons of slowly degrading plastics in oceans, public parks and waterways.

Companies, too, have gotten in on the act voluntarily. In 2018, Alaska Airlines banned plastic straws after an information campaign from a Girl Scout. Starbucks, too, is on a push to eliminate plastic straws from its 28,000 coffee stores.

But legislators in the ruby-red state South Dakota, which has no maritime life, suggested the pollution concerns have been blown out of proportion. One lawmaker said he didn’t mind seeing a plastic coffee can “getting tossed into the river.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Sen. Jeff Monroe, a Republican. “It’s habitat for bait fish. It’s habitat for crayfish. I really don’t have a problem with that.”

GOP Sen. Lee Schoenbeck said he wanted to avoid confusing regulatory environment for statewide retailers who might purchase plastic bags or straws in bulk.

“I don’t think we should have a balkanization of our laws,” Mr. Schoenbeck said, adding that he thought retailers should be left alone to deal with pollution “innovatively.”

But opponents of the anti-ban legislation pressed lawmakers to acknowledge plastic pollution in the state — made even more stark by last year’s flooding.

“This past spring brought the problem of plastic bags to light,” testified Dana Loseke, a representative of the Friends of the Big Sioux River, an environmental collaboration between citizens, communities, and businesses along the river that flooded on the state’s eastern edge in 2019.

Mr. Loseke described clean-up crews rattled by a “plastic forest” on trees and in culverts. “Suddenly people said, ‘We’ve got to start doing something more about it,’” he said.

The college city of Brookings, which sits on the banks of the Big Sioux, considered banning bags last fall before. Instead, its sustainability council encouraged a public information campaign on the environmental damage caused by relying on single-use plastic bags.

Sen. Craig Kennedy, a Democrat from the river town of Yankton, said he found it ironic that the state’s conservative leaders were looking to overrun local decision-makers.

“The city of Yankton can sit down and decide what’s best for it. It may not be what’s best for Pierre or what’s best for Rapid City, but this bill says Yankton doesn’t get to decide,” said Mr. Kennedy. “I’ve got a problem with that.”

The bill succeed on a voice vote and will now move to the full Senate.

Scientists say plastic degrades more slowly, with estimates that a single bag buried in a landfill may take 1,000 years to fully breakdown.

However, plastic bans also have caused a headache for retailers searching for other recyclable materials to use.

Moreover, a National Geographic article from 2019 cast doubt on the effectiveness of plastic bans, such as in Kenya, where bans have opened up illegal plastic black markets.

While evidence frequently cited by bag-banners consists of unsightly plastic scattered in trees or blowing aimlessly down streets, environmentalists in Tuesday’s debate drew on a distinctly rural conundrum — plastic from interstates or towns littering ranching and farming operations.

“I’ve had a number of folks in the farming and ranching community talk about the plastics issue,” said Rebecca Terk of Dakota Rural Action. “They’ve had [plastic bag issues] with their balers or in the grass [they’re] having problems just with trash, trash everywhere.”

But just as in urban areas, where retailers or the plastics industry group has fought plastic bag fines, lawmakers in Tuesday’s debate were largely swayed by the fears of local entrepreneurs.

“A patchwork of laws doesn’t fix the littering problem that we currently have,” said Nathan Sanderson, representing the state’s retail association. “But it does make it harder to do business in this state.”

A few states with big businesses that use plastic bags have forged ahead. In March, New York’s statewide ban of all plastic carryout bags will go into effect. Under the new law, cities and counties can also charge a 5-cent fee on single-use paper bags.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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