As bans on plastic packaging gain steam in parts of the country — think New York's bag ban and Maine's expanded polystyrene foam ban — other state governments are moving in the opposite direction, clamping down on cities that want to ban or tax packaging.
Oklahoma became the latest state to adopt a so-called "ban on local bans" law April 23, when Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation preventing its cities and counties from acting against packaging.
The Sooner state joined Tennessee, which passed a similar law in mid-April, and North Dakota, where the governor signed a law in late March.
The quick flurry of activity in those states means at least 14 states now have laws banning their cities from acting. Most of the laws cover many types of packaging and containers, and all materials, but plastics seem to get most of the public attention.
Environmental groups and some cities decry the new state laws as making it harder to reduce litter and plastic pollution, but bag industry officials say making it a statewide decision recognizes the complexity of the issue.
"It's a victory for sustainable packaging, as well as consumers and businesses in those states," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance in Washington. "Residents will not be forced to deal with a patchwork of ordinances, and they won't be encouraged by their government to use products that are worse for the environment."
But the idea of "bans on bans" has also become more controversial this year, even in some of the politically conservative states that traditionally are most supportive of the industry's positions.
In South Carolina and Alabama, for example, mayors are pushing back heavily against campaigns by the plastic bag industry and local business groups.
A ban on bans in South Carolina's state Legislature has likely stalled until 2020 in the face of opposition in coastal cities, many of which, like Charleston, already have bans or fees.
They argue that since they have to pay for much of the packaging waste cleanup, they should have authority. And they say bags gum up equipment in recycling facilities and raise costs.
Similarly, a bill in Alabama that would limit local government authority is meeting resistance from city councils in Mobile and Birmingham.
"The city of Mobile is being inundated by litter," said City Council member Joel Davies, who led a unanimous vote to oppose the state legislation. "If you've ever been out there and spent some time picking it up, you know that most of it is discarded containers for food and beverage items to be consumed off premises and also shopping bags, plastic shopping bags."
Mobile city officials say they have no immediate ordinances in the works but opposed what they call state preemption.
"It's a significant environmental problem which effects not only our economy but this beautiful environment we've come to all enjoy," Davies said. "I've been meeting with some concerned citizens and some concerned organizations over the last couple of months trying to look at what steps the city might take."
But supporters of the state laws, such as Oklahoma's governor, argue that it's better to have a uniform state standard, rather than a patchwork of local ordinances that they say would create regulatory burdens for business and higher costs for consumers.
"I just don't think that we should be putting laws and rules on business from 500 municipalities," Stitt said, in an interview with Oklahoma City TV station KFOR.
The State Chamber of Oklahoma praised Stitt for signing the law, saying in a statement that it's "key to a healthy economy for consumers and businesses."
"Without this law, cities across Oklahoma would have been able to add taxes and fees to paper and plastic products that we and our consumers use every day," said chamber President and CEO Fred Morgan, adding that local legislation "creates a regulatory patchwork while driving up costs — costs that customers will ultimately be forced to pay,"
Oklahoma's new ban on local action came as the city of Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, was considering a 5-cent fee on plastic bags.
That city's Mayor-elect, Breea Clark, tweeted to Stitt, after he made comments that he wanted to make it easy for businesses, that she thought Oklahoma had bigger problems than bag bans keeping it from recruiting companies.
"Seriously, @GovStitt? Companies won't come here b/c of plastic bags?," Clark wrote, arguing that things like "four-day school weeks," "grossly underfunded public education," and "opioid addiction" were bigger barriers to making the state attractive to corporate investment.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group called Oklahoma's move a "huge step backwards."
"Taking away the ability for cities and towns to address plastic pollution creates huge risks to our environment and our public health," said Alex Truelove, the group's zero waste director.
But state legislatures around the country in favor of the ban on bans frame it differently.
They say that by taking a statewide approach, they are doing as California legislators did when they banned plastic bags statewide in 2014 or New York lawmakers did in April — they say that all sides are making it a state issue and taking power away from cities.
Advocates of limiting local authority, like Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell, refer to it as setting statewide standards.
"This is not new in our country, liberal states such as California and Minnesota have passed statewide standards on these products," Bell said. "Conservative states like Arizona and Mississippi have."
"We're just going to say that from here on out, the state shall regulate these items," Bell said. "That's simply what this bill does. We've done it on wage issues, we've done it on weapons, and we've done it previously on smoking."
Seaholm said he thinks the bans on local bans legislation reflect that more people are weighing the environmental impact of alternatives to plastic bags. APBA said bags are less than 1 percent of waste in the U.S.
"What has been different this year is that folks are beginning to consider the sustainability of the bags that will be used to replace plastic bags if they are banned or taxed," Seaholm said. "People are realizing that the plastic grocery bag, when disposed of properly, is the best option at the store."
As plastics packaging debates heat up state legislatures, statewide standards debates seem likely to continue. Florida's legislature, for example, passed a law April 30 preventing cities from banning plastic straws for five years.
In Minnesota, there's a push in the opposite direction — that state adopted a ban on local bans in 2017. It was passed to stop a bag ban in Minneapolis.
But the November 2018 elections saw Democrats take control of the state House and begin a push to repeal that 2017 law, passed when Republicans controlled both chambers.
Advocates for repeal say since recycling policies vary from city to city, it's reasonable to let cities have different packaging policies. At a recent legislative hearing, a spokesman for the League of Minnesota Cities didn't argue the pros and cons of bags but said authority should rest with local governments.
"I can confidently tell you that many of our over 800 member cities have no interest in regulating bags," said Brad Wiersum, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn. "I can also confidently tell you that all of our members support the ability of any city to consider doing so."