In the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday, friends Lila Mankad and Caoilin Krathaus, both 11-years-old, piled into a car in Houston with each of their fathers to deliver a message to lawmakers in Austin: Ban single-use plastic bags.
The two kids, who started an organization called Bag-free Bayous, arrived at the Capitol to discourage lawmakers from striking down bag bans in about a dozen cities around Texas, including Austin.
The persistent problems of bags hanging from trees and choking waterways “give our bayous a bad reputation,” Caoilin said.
She and Lila regularly clean their neighborhood park of plastic bags — only to see them soon reappear. For about a year now, they have gathered petitions to push Houston to ban plastic bags.
At a news conference and outside the Texas House chamber, they were surrounded by adults dressed as a cow, a goat and a sea turtle — wildlife that environmentalists say are at risk from plastic bags blowing into waterways or rangeland.
“Bags get blown around, get stuck on barbed wire, and I eat ‘em,” said the cow, played by Jeffrey Jacoby, a staffer with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “When I eat plastic bags, it hurts me; sometimes it might even kill me, and my family, and it’s going to cost my owner a lot of money.”
The kids — and the livestock — face long odds at a Capitol where lawmakers have long angled to dismantle local bag bans, and where the governor has suggested they amount to an abrogation of personal liberty.
In an interview, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said bag bans interfere with the “consumer relationship with the retailer, disadvantages the poor, and hinders the overall convenience factor.”
Springer, who has tried ending such bans in the past, said they are “a slippery slope to what we’ve seen in New York City, where they regulate the size of soft drinks, or the amount of salt in our diet. It’s the nanny state.”
Even as conservative lawmakers hope that courts will soon block policies in a dozen or more Texas cities to limit the use of plastic bags at the checkout counter, an effort to shield bag bans like Austin’s won a hearing Tuesday before a Texas House committee, prompting the visit by Lila and Caoilin.
The proposal, by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, comes in response to a key August court decision now under appeal.
The ruling by a San Antonio-based state appeals court to toss out Laredo’s ban on store-provided checkout bags technically has no immediate effect on similar bans outside the court’s 32-county South Texas district, which does not include Austin.
In its ruling, the 4th Court of Appeals said Laredo’s bag ban was preempted by a state law that says cities cannot “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package.”
Store-provided bags, the court ruled, are containers under the law.
Hoping to insulate city bag bans from the courts, Hinojosa proposes to add a line to state code that says “‘package or container’ does not include a single-use plastic bag.”
Meanwhile, all sides have appealed the San Antonio court’s ruling to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, hoping for broader clarity.
“We’re looking for the Supreme Court to see (the bag bans) repealed once and for all,” Springer said at a conservative policy confab in January.
Phil Rozenski, an officer at Novolex, which manufactures plastic bags and packaging material, said at the same policy conference that the bag bans amount to “regulation at any cost.”
Environmentalists say that even if the Texas Supreme Court doesn’t take the case, bag bans across the state remain vulnerable.
“If they don’t take up the case, our foes are going to use a court of appeals decision to threaten to sue outside that district,” said Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.