A proposed city ordinance that would force New Orleans shoppers to pay extra for disposable bags could be quashed before it’s even passed if a newly filed bill gets state lawmakers’ approval.
The local ordinance, introduced in November by City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry but not yet voted on, would attach fees to the plastic and brown paper bags provided at city stores.
The aim is to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, a move environmental activists say would reduce pollution and slash city waste management costs.
The proposal’s detractors, however, say it is an unwanted tax and warn that shoppers peeved by the new charge could turn to retailers in adjacent parishes.
The fees — 10 cents for non-biodegradable plastic bags and 5 cents for recyclable paper bags — would not apply to customers who benefit from public assistance programs, such as food stamps. There also would be exemptions for bags holding a variety of items, including meat or seafood, restaurant takeout meals and Mardi Gras beads, among others.
The city’s Department of Safety and Permits would be charged with enforcing the rules. Businesses that do not follow the ordinance would be subject to a $100 fine for a first offense and $500 for subsequent violations.
The state bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, said the proposal has upset those who enjoy the convenience of disposable packaging. This and similar bag charges that have taken hold in municipalities across the country are proof of the “proliferation of the nanny state,” he said.
“I think it’s more government intrusion into something where there’s not truly a problem,” Hollis said. Further, he said, “you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of jobs in Louisiana alone” that would suffer because of such fees.
He said studies have shown reusable bags’ positive impact on the environment to be much less pronounced than activists suggest.
To overcome the deleterious effects that the production of a reusable canvas bag has on the planet, a person would need to use that bag 131 times, Hollis said.
If his bill — House Bill 192 — becomes law, it would block the New Orleans City Council and other local government agencies from adopting or enforcing any ordinance “that regulates or restricts, by taxation, prohibition or any other means” the use of bags or other containers for customer convenience in retail settings.
The bill will be taken up in the Legislature’s regular session, which begins Monday.
The council had not planned to consider its ordinance until April or May, Guidry said. The proposed fees would have been effective six months after adoption.
“I was certainly disappointed to see that,” Guidry said of Hollis’ bill.
Even more upset with Hollis are the environmental groups that pushed the council to consider the measure in the first place.
The president of the advocacy group No Waste NOLA, one of about 30 organizations that make up the Louisiana Reusable Bag Alliance, ripped through Hollis’ arguments Thursday.
“I’ve had a canvas bag for five years. I’ve used it well over 131 times,” Max Ciolino said. “Another thing that he fails to recognize is that, especially when it comes to canvas versus plastic, you do not have the same level of sustainable harm.”
Plastic bags exposed to sunlight photodegrade over time, he said, and can leach into the water supply and harm marine life. While charging for bags in New Orleans may somewhat hurt the companies that produce those bags, canvas bag production and sustainable recycling also can create jobs, Ciolino said.
He also scoffed at the “nanny state” argument and said it was hypocritical for a champion of limited government to infringe on a local body’s right to govern.
Hollis said he would normally agree with that argument but that some local policies are “beyond the pale.”
A spokesman for the Louisiana Chemical Association, which has member businesses that produce a chemical frequently found in plastic bags, said the group has not taken a position on Hollis’ bill.
The measure will be heard by the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs, which first meets March 17.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.