Missoula, Bozeman battle against single-use plastics, but is Legislature listening?
(Missoula Current) During a Legislative debate on the ability of communities to restrict the use of plastics, Democrats struggled to convince Republicans that local control is best.
On Tuesday, 15 Montanans, led by several from Bozeman and Missoula, testified in favor of House Bill 413, which would reverse a law passed two years ago that prohibits cities and towns from taking individual action to limit or ban single-use plastics.
Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said the city of Bozeman asked him to carry the bill, but it didn’t take much convincing, because for him, it was about local control and government overreach.
“That list in the statute where local governments are prohibited from doing different things has grown exponentially in the last few years,” Stafman said. “Instead of giving power to the people at the lowest level where they’re closest to their elected officials in cities and counties, this body has taken that power away and decided that they know what’s best for Bozeman and Glendive and everywhere else.”
Thomas Jodoin, Montana League of Cities and Towns deputy director, said HB 413 was important to Montana’s 127 incorporated towns because they need the latitude to manage their own solid waste and storm water systems.
“The last session probably went way too far in that the voters cannot decide how to best manage their solid waste systems. This fundamentally goes against the principles of democracy,” Jodoin said.
Missoula City Council member Gwen Jones agreed with Stafman and Jodoin. Without local control, Missoula wouldn’t have been able to ban wood-burning fireplaces in the valley in the 1970s when local inversions cause air quality to reach unhealthy levels. Without having the option to limit plastic, the city of Missoula will have a tough time reaching its goal of zero waste by 2050, Jones said.
“Having a clean and healthy environment is very important to a majority of Missoulians. We would like to have the opportunity to figure out a way forward in our city to use less single-use plastics,” Jones said. “I notice when I travel around the United States how many other communities have already taken strong steps in this direction and it works just fine.”
Natalie Meyer, Sustainability Program manager for the city of Bozeman reminded the committee that people have used single-use plastic bags only for the past 40 years, so there are other alternatives. And a ban isn’t the only option - cities can require a 5 or 10 cent fee per plastic bag, which can raise tax revenue in addition to discouraging plastic bag use.
So far, 10 states have completely banned single-use plastic bags or instituted fees, including Washington, Oregon and California.
In late December, Bozeman passed a resolution to push the Legislature to lift the ban imposed by House Bill 407 on cities passing their own ban on plastics. In late January, the city of Missoula did the same.
Matthew Passini of the Montana Environmental Information Center said revoking the ban imposed by HB 407 reduced regulation so it fits well with Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “Red Tape Relief” initiative.
Katie Harrison of Billings said she’d been trying to convince Billings to pass its own resolution, because Billings’ garbage problem is growing with its population. The Billings landfill is the largest in the state, but it will run out of room within 50 years at its current rate. Harrison said it could last longer if more plastic within its annual 350,000 tons of garbage could be eliminated.
Bozeman resident Teresa Quatraro tried to make that more clear to the committee by carrying a pound of plastic bags that resembled a beanbag chair to the podium and telling them to multiply it by 40,000 each month.
“I need you to see it,” Quatraro said. “It’s filling our landfills, and because of 407, we can’t do anything about it. Overturning 407 would allow us to deal with this.”
Many of the bill proponents highlighted the human health and environmental dangers posed by plastic, which takes decades or centuries to degrade and then persists in soil and water as microplastic. When people and animals ingest microplastic, it can lead to a myriad of health problems.
Only two representatives of business rose to oppose the bill. Brad Griffin of the Montana Retail Association said his organization was responsible for writing HB 407 in 2021.
“We felt having a statewide, uniform standard for what was acceptable and what was not acceptable was preferable to the patchwork of what we’ve seen happen in other jurisdictions across the United States,” Griffin said.
“If we’re going to have a dime per bag surcharge or whatever the tax is, let’s make it a statewide statement and have that debate among the larger body here,” Griffin said.
Stafman said he was open to an amendment to his bill if someone wanted to create a statewide bag tax.
Brad Longcake of the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association said his organization also helped develop HB 407 because many sanitary regulations require hot or cold food to be put in a plastic container.
“We don’t disagree with any of the environmental challenges that come with utilizing plastic and other resources. But, from a strictly operational perspective, it makes the businesses across Montana equal and operate to the same level that any other business would have to do, related to these products,” Longcake said.
Stafman said the opponents’ arguments seemed thin, because Costco is able to adjust to all the different demands of customers across the nation.
“There’s no burden to be put on retail stores by catering to the needs of their particular markets. That’s what businesses do, that’s what capitalism is, that’s what the free marketplace is about,” Stafman said. “Larger cities like Bozeman, Billings and Missoula, they’re growing cities with issues around landfills and solid waste and to deny them the ability to deal with their problems is just the kind of central government overreach we don’t need.”
The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.