Lawrence front and center as legislators consider bill prohibiting local governments from banning plastic

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Nancy Muma, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Kansas, speaks at a committee hearing at the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Topeka — Lawrence’s ban on single-use plastic bags will lead to a confusing “patchwork of regulations” that business owners in Kansas would have to navigate, and that is why such local bans should be prohibited by state law, according to proponents of a bill in the Kansas Legislature.

During a Senate committee hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse, lawmakers heard about the pros and cons of the proposed legislation. Proponents of the bill claimed that Lawrence city leaders had overstepped their reach in passing an ordinance, scheduled to take effect in March, that would ban single-use plastic bags, while opponents of the bill praised Lawrence’s attempt to protect the environment.

After the hearing, Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, told the Journal-World that some of the testimony “amounted to a smackdown on Lawrence for trying to do something proactive.”

Lawrence city leaders “spent all this time and effort researching a solution that makes sense for their area, and the Legislature may try to undo that,” Holscher said. “And it concerns me that we as a legislative body may say to them ‘nope, doesn’t matter.'”

Eric Stafford, vice president of government affairs for The Kansas Chamber, has spearheaded the effort to pass the bill that would effectively ban bans. At the hearing, convened by the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs, Stafford said a similar bill that was vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly in 2022 was meant to prevent local governments from doing what Lawrence did.

In August 2023, Lawrence became the first municipality in the state to ban single-use plastic bags. Because Lawrence’s ordinance goes into effect in a matter of weeks, Stafford told lawmakers that the pending bill is now a “time-sensitive matter.”

He said that the bill would ultimately “create a uniform standard by which to operate across the state.” Lawrence’s ban, he said, creates an uneven playing field for businesses within Lawrence’s city limits versus those without.

“We’re trying to prevent a patchwork of laws prohibiting perfectly legal and safe products,” Stafford said.

Stafford questioned why it was OK for consumers to buy products wrapped or stored in plastic containers but not OK to carry those products around in a plastic bag. He said opponents of the bill were framing the issue “under the guise of saving the environment,” but disputed the impact of bans like Lawrence’s on environmental quality.

‘We all like to live in clean spaces,” Stafford said. “But I think this effort here just puts a strain on businesses and makes it more costly for businesses and consumers to comply with.”

Dan Murray, Kansas’ director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the Lawrence ban would create an unfair burden for businesses that own facilities in Lawrence and in other parts of the state because business owners would have to seek out multiple vendors for various products in order to comply with the ban. He said that it’s financially advantageous for small businesses to purchase in bulk from a single vendor, as opposed to “having to comply with a different patchwork of regulations.”

“This is not the first time we’ve asked the state to step in and ask for a statewide approach to certain things that impact small business owners,” he said, citing minimum wage as an example. “We have statewide bans on local ordinances on various other things, so this is not out of step or out of line.”

Sen. Chase Blasi, R-Wichita, said that a ban on plastic materials, specifically plastic bags, would result in costly alternatives for businesses and that those increased costs would then be “pushed onto consumers.”

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Sen. Chase Blasi, R-Wichita, speaks at a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

Zack Pistora, of the Kansas Sierra Club, pushed back on all of those arguments, saying that single-use plastic bags, which don’t biodegrade like paper, are one of the least recycled materials and are especially environmentally harmful. Pistora questioned why state lawmakers “support a bill that would stop a Kansas town from doing something positive and proactive to address an environmental problem they care about.” He said that residents of Lawrence, a voluntary advisory board and “even a class of fourth graders” had previously urged local leaders to enact the ban.

“And their elected leaders responded democratically,” he said, adding that Lawrence grocer The Merc “doesn’t hand out plastic bags and is doing just fine.”

Spencer Duncan, a member of the Topeka City Council and government affairs director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said that decisions like Lawrence’s ban fell under “constitutional Home Rule,” and that it was premature to talk about this kind of prohibitive bill when other cities did not appear to be following Lawrence’s lead.

Rural western Douglas County resident Tad Kramar chastised lawmakers for even considering the bill.

“When you took office, you took an oath to support the Constitution of Kansas,” he said, referring to the Home Rule section of the state constitution that empowers local governments to determine their local affairs. “Voting for this bill would be a violation of your oath of office.”

Nancy Muma, a professor who chairs the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Kansas, told lawmakers of the health dangers of plastics.

“And I’m not talking about the environment; I’m talking about your health,” she said.

“Plastic breaks down into tiny particles, nanoparticles, and is in the air we breathe, the water we drink and food we eat,” she said. “I’m here as a citizen, but most importantly a scientist, to tell you about the health concerns of plastic.”

Holscher, the Democratic senator, told the Journal-World that she expected the bill to move quickly.

Tuesday’s hearing concluded without a vote on the matter, but Mike Thompson, the Republican chair of the Senate’s Federal and State Affairs Committee, told the Journal-World that there “were interesting arguments on both sides — and there were good, valid points on both sides. We’ll just see where the committee goes on this.”


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