Tempe Councilwoman Sues Arizona for Cities' Right to Ban Plastic Bags

A Tempe City Councilwoman filed a lawsuit today challenging a new Arizona law blocking local governments from banning the use of plastic shopping bags.

Lauren Kuby, with help from the Arizona Center for Law in the Public interest, argues that Senate Bill 1241 violates a provision of the state's constitution that prohibits the Legislature from dictating how charter cities, such as Tempe, deal with local matters.

"Waste management is a city responsibility, not a state responsibility," she said. "It's not their place to tell us how to do it."

The lawsuit also attacks legislators for two procedural screwups.

The constitution requires each bill to address a single subject and have a title that accurately reflects that subject. In the case of SB 1241, however, lawmakers shepherded the plastic-bag issue into an unrelated bill titled "Relating to Energy Regulatory Prohibition." The resulting law also prohibits cities from passing ordinances requiring similar businesses to report and compare energy consumption in an attempt to cut costs.

When the law was passed in April, Tempe was considering an ordinance that would have prohibited grocers and retailers from using plastic bags and would have allowed them to charge a minimum of 10 cents for each paper bag. The city hoped the ordinance would encourage customers to use canvass bags to carry their goods..

The city is one of several across the country, including the Hamptons in New York, moving to reduce the amount of plastic piling up in landfills, clogging storm drains, and polluting the ocean.

U.S. residents use more than 100 billion plastic bags per year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Between 1 and 3 percent are recycled; the rest take about 1,000 years to break down.

In response to the lawsuit, Governor Doug Ducey's spokesman Daniel Scarpinato defended SB 1241 as "common-sense legislation" that ensures business don't have to deal with a "patchwork of regulations all across the state." Ordinances like the one Tempe proposed, he argued, would increase grocery and shopping costs for Arizona citizens.

"Governor Ducey remains unwavering in his commitment to reduce burdensome government regulations," he said.

But Kuby, who filed the lawsuit as a private citizen, called that argument "hypocritical."

"How can a Legislature that constantly derides the federal government for getting involved in its affairs tell cities what to do in regard to waste management?" she said.

For now, Tempe has put the bag ban on hold. But the council has assigned a committee to "look at options," Kuby said.

"We could approach businesses about addressing the issue voluntarily," she said. "Education will only move the dial a tiny bit, but it's still important."
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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart