A push by several cities in Montana to win permission from state lawmakers to regulate plastics and packaging has apparently been stopped, with lawmakers voting down their plan.
A state House committee Feb. 16 tabled the measure after a debate that saw cities and their allies argue local governments should have more power to deal with the problem as they want, while business groups said a single, statewide approach is better.
Montana lawmakers in 2021 had passed House Bill 407, which restricted local governments from bans or other laws around plastic packaging.
This year, however, Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, filed HB-413 to give that power back to cities.
At a Feb. 14 legislative hearing, he and other supporters said cities should have flexibility to deal with it as they want.
"The truth is that not every local government [or] every city has the same needs in this regard," Stafman said. "But larger cities like Bozeman and Billings and Missoula, all of whom have acted in or seek to act in this regard, they're growing cities with issues around landfills and solid waste and stormwater and so on.
"To deny them the ability to deal with their problems, which everyone seems to acknowledge is a big problem, is the kind of central government overreach that we don't need," Stafman said. "Local control means local control."
Missoula City Council member Gwen Jones agreed.
"Having local control over this issue would be the best way forward," Jones said. "When we craft policy, we have many conversations over months, with stakeholders on all sides, to find the best implementation tools and practices that we can use."
Natalie Meyer, the sustainability program manager for the city of Bozeman, told lawmakers that plastic bag fees have been successful in other cities.
She said research shows that fees of 5-10 cents per bag can reduce plastic bag use by about 72 percent. A ban isn't a city's only option, she said.
"By continuing our reliance on plastic bags, we're passing on the burden of these containers to our children, their children and many, many generations of Montana children beyond that," Meyer said, adding that Montana's recycling market is limited.
Isaac Cheek, grassroots conservation coordinator at the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center in Bozeman, said HB-413 would let cities account for regional differences in waste management.
"HB-413 is a clean fix to HB-407, a bill that unnecessarily restricted local government from addressing plastic pollution in a way that accounts for unique regional differences," he said.
But business groups pushed lawmakers to defeat Stafman's plan.
Brad Griffin, president of the Montana Retail Association, said having a statewide uniform standard is better for business and said he had organized support for HB-407.
"We have seen a widespread patchwork of ordinances from one city to the next," he said. "They're very expensive to contend with as a business owner or business that has multiple locations. We would urge [you] to do not pass this bill and respect the will of the last legislative session in House Bill 407."
Stafman, however, responded that he didn't see a burden for retail stores to comply with different local laws.
"There is no burden to speak of to be put on retail stores by catering to the needs of their particular markets," he said. "That's what businesses do. That's what capitalism is. That's what the free marketplace is about."
Eight states have completely banned single-use plastic bags or have instituted fees, including Oregon, Maine and California.