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Guest commentary

Snyder should veto ill-considered legislative bullying of home rule


Why does the Michigan Legislature care if Washtenaw County limits the use of plastic bags?

A handful of Michigan communities – most notably in Washtenaw and Muskegon Counties – have recently considered local strategies to reduce litter and waste caused by the prevalence of single-use plastic bags and other disposable plastic containers.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags annually, with the average American family taking home about 1,500 plastic bags every year. Unfortunately, only about 1 percent of single-use plastic bags are currently being recycled nationwide, despite efforts to expand recycling programs.

George Heartwell served as mayor of Grand Rapids from 2004 to 2016 and serves on the Michigan League of Conservation Voters Board of Directors.

George Heartwell served as mayor of Grand Rapids from 2004 to 2016 and serves on the Michigan League of Conservation Voters Board of Directors.

Recycling these bags has been particularly challenging because they are not accepted by curbside recycling programs, where they get tangled in the conveyor systems. In Washtenaw County alone, 25 percent of costs for equipment repairs at recycling facilities are from damage caused by plastic bags jamming equipment.

On top of costs of repair and downtime at recycling facilities, local governments routinely spend significant human and financial resources cleaning up plastic litter in our neighborhoods, streams and rivers, and clogged storm drains.

For these reasons alone, it is perfectly reasonable for any community to want to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastic bags; particularly in the absence of statewide or federal solutions.

Local governments are responsible for responding to and finding solutions for issues raised in their community. This is the most basic charge for every mayor, city council member or township trustee in Michigan.

It should go without saying that local elected governments are just that — elected, by their communities, to address issues that the community deems important.

Why then is our state government poised to create a law that singularly forbids local governments from pursuing policies regulating the use of single-use plastic bags within their community?

Senate Bill 853 does just that, and it is now sitting on Governor Snyder’s desk awaiting his signature. This legislation is not worthy of his signature; it deserves his veto instead.

If voters in Washtenaw or Muskegon County believe it is important to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, local elected leaders should be free to do their job regardless of whether state lawmakers think the issue is important.

As the former mayor of Grand Rapids, I can tell you from experience that the challenges facing one community can be quite different from those facing another, or the state of Michigan at large.

If voters want to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags in their community, they should be allowed to pursue reasonable policies to that end without interference from Lansing. Please join me in urging Gov. Snyder to veto Senate Bill 853.

The state has many challenges before it that need the attention of statewide policymakers. Restricting local governments’ ability to solve their own problems is not one of them.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

39 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Eric

    Such a legislative overreach. Republicans talk about the freedom of Federalism from D.C. but when cities want to do something different they view themselves as torchbearers of freedom like what’s happened in North Carolina. And how many grocery stores in Ann Arbor would even be affected by this to waste time making this a statewide issue? Just another example of the people in Lansing wasting your tax dollars playing petty politics.

  2. Jerry

    I hope it gets signed. Employers, grocery chains and other taxpayers don’t need a mish mash, hopscotch of local laws to deal with. If you don’t want to use plastic bags don’t use plastic bags. Stop forcing your beliefs on everyone. You’re doing the the same thing that you accuse Lansing of: overreach.

    1. Eric

      You mean like every other local law every company deals with in every city….

    2. Peter

      Oh, dear. Companies having to be responsive to the communities in which they do business. Thank you for at least not using the cliche term “patchwork.”

    3. Kat

      It is not the least bit difficult for stores to have to deal with different laws. Stores in jurisdictions that ban plastic bags can simply stop offering them. That poses no difficulty or confusion whatsoever. The customers in those can then just bring their own bags, which is no big deal.

      This issue has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “beliefs”. There is a mound of plastic in the ocean as large as a continent and it is choking out sea life that we all depend on to survive. This is a practical partial solution to a real live problem, there is nothing metaphysical about it.

      Funny how you are worried about others pushing their beliefs on you, but not the least bit concerned with how you are pushing your garbage on everyone else.

    4. Kathleen

      So Jerry, are you the same type that is “pro-life” and votes for candidates that that are anti-abortion and gay-rights? Do you have the same attitude toward those issues. If you choose to want an abortion it is your right even though I may not choose? I hope you are consistent with that statement and not just selective. Some times we need laws for the common good including our environment that God intrusted to us to care for. I see how the unpopular pop can deposit has helped clean our environment and forced recycling on a needed product. Stop caring about Self and care about the common good!

      1. Karen Dunnam

        “I see how the unpopular pop can deposit has helped clean our environment and forced recycling on a needed product.”

        Our bottle deposit law is one of the most popular legislative efforts ever passed. Might want to check your source.

    5. JohnG

      A crazy patchwork of state and local laws is the only thing standing between we, the people, and leftwing totalitarianism of the Hillary kind.

      Republicans do themselves no long-term favors (except perhaps for the best-capitalized cronies among them) by destroying the ability of local governments, representing their citizens, to legislate their own regulations to the maximum extent possible. There are exceptions, of course, where state or federal regulation is the only reasonable approach. This is not one of those exceptions.

  3. Barry

    The article doesn’t tell us why the legislature supports this legislation. My experience is this kind of thing doesn’t happen by itself. Somebody is behind it. It would be interesting to find out who that is.

    1. Eric

      I would guess Meijers Filthy Acres given the jurisdictions and that Kroger isn’t in West Michigan

    2. Jamie

      Check candidate donations from the Michigan Grocers Association.

    3. Mark

      These bags are made from petroleum products. The petroleum industry, with its deep pockets and powerful lobbies…again.

  4. Doug Andridge

    Sorry Jerry The issue is not plastic bags. The issue is home rule.

  5. chester marx

    Pure Michigan…micromanagement at it’s worst, or best. The philosophy of “we know better” than the peons who were so silly to have voted for us.

  6. Frank Lynn

    These Elected Officials say they are in favor of local control until it doesn’t go their way or some lobbyist tells them how to vote. You can’t believe a word that they say.

  7. Rob Sisson

    Ditto for taking control of fireworks away from local municipalities. Densely populated neighborhoods are not appropriate places for explosions and fiery objects launched into the air. Pets, vets, elderly, the young…and private property rights all attacked when the state took local control away.

  8. Wm Douglas

    All the bitching and no solutions. I’ve used two Trader Joe large shopping bags for the past six years with a minimum of the plastics. Offer the permanent bags at a discount and really promote them. Don’t rely on paper since you create the same p roblem you have with plastics.

    1. Eric

      Kroger removed the handles from paper bags to make sure people only use plastic.
      I also use reusable bags since they’re much better for carrying heavy items.

  9. Michigan Observer

    Mr. Heartwell says, “Unfortunately, only about 1 percent of single-use plastic bags are currently being recycled nationwide, despite efforts to expand recycling programs.” He is implying that the average family litters the landscape with 1485 plastic bags a year (1500 times .99). But is that the case? Isn’t it possible that the average family puts the vast majority (perhaps all) of those plastic bags safely in the trash.

    He goes on to say, “local governments routinely spend significant human and financial resources cleaning up plastic litter in our neighborhoods, streams and rivers, and clogged storm drains.” Notably, he doesn’t give any reliable dollar figure for the costs they incur. He goes on to say, correctly, that “Local governments are responsible for responding to and finding solutions for issues raised in their community.” But he doesn’t give any evidence that the costs of cleaning up plastic litter outweigh the possible savings from using plastic bags. After all, all costs are ultimately passed on to consumers. There is little point in saving the taxpayer a dollar at the expense of costing the consumer a dollar and ten cents.

    It may very well be that eliminating plastic bags is wise, but Mr. Heartwell has not presented evidence that it is. He instead presented it in terms of local prerogatives. It should have been framed in terms of net benefits.

    1. Eric

      Check the headline

    2. Mark

      “Safely in the trash”? Do you consider endless landfills a safe option for disposal of avoidable waste?

  10. Marilyn Lewis

    There are so many more issues to deal with, this is ridiculous. For years the legislature has been promising to address car insurance rates and instead they go after 2 counties for a law that would help the environment. Makes no sense to me!! By the way–I just got my insurance bill!!!

  11. Dot Potter Barnett

    Hmmm, I thought Republicans were for local control, and want less government interference…

  12. Matt

    Mr. “Heartwell never says what should the limit and demarcation of “Local” vs, State vs. Federal control be? Should E. Lansing be able to ban GMOs and sugar drinks? Should Ann Arbor ban all “nonrenewable power” Or how about Grayling banning childhood vaccinations and ? Does his silence indicate that there should be no limits for any good intention that comes along? After watching the former Mayor over the years, I suspect it does.

    1. Eric

      There’s no federal laws or agency that governs plastic bags like the two strawman examples you gave.

  13. Trish

    Make the stores use paper bags. The whole single use bags is to save businesses money (money that was not passed onto us). The people in the UP would love to make paper! Of course you would have to go back to baggers; so instead of Meijer and Walmart having four lanes open, they may have only two of the twenty lanes available.

    1. Eric

      Yeah, maybe all those savings they’re now getting with automated checkout can go towards some half-decent bags WITH HANDLES.

  14. Kevin Grand

    The plastic bags are more sanitary than the “green” canvas bags I see people bring into the local grocery store, which by their appearances are rarely (if ever) washed.

    I’d rather see a single use bag, which gets used again for other purposes like packing a lunch or disposing of trash, than someone’s filthy bag(s) sitting on the counter as I’m having my purchase rung up the next time I go grocery shopping.

    1. reb

      Kevin, don’t look down — the cart handle you are pushing or the counter itself has a lot of icky on it as well. Our world is full of germs, it’s unavoidable and even beneficial

      1. Kevin Grand

        I don’t know where you shop at, reb, but the grocery store that I go to always has wipes near the front door and a clean freak (in a good way) working the register.

        Nice try.

  15. Ian

    It is likely worth noting Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s coverage of this issue, and related political contributions of interested parties:

  16. Jay Charles

    Republicans are great believers in local government, home rule until one of the local governments steps on their fiefdom, then it’s a quick run to the State seeking to overturn the perceived transgression. Then, the idea of home rule goes out the window and the legislature rolls over.

  17. Carolyn

    Meijer does give the paper bag option in its unlimited items self checkout, but Wal-Mart has told me they don’t offer paper bags. I save my plastic bags to reuse (i.e. small trash bag, groceries at Aldi, …), occasionally use cloth bags that go in the washing machine, when I get too many plastic bags I can usually donate them to a thrift store that helps the community and since they sometimes run low they appreciate the gift that cost me nothing. Note I will sometimes get the paper bags at Meijer for recycling paper at home.

  18. duane

    It seems there are two issues and neither were appropriately addressed.

    If it is about ‘home rule’ then there should be some specific boundaries established for when and why the State should establish laws and when they should not. It seems municipalities are the creation of the State [can’t exist without the state] and can be dissolved by the State, that would suggest that the State does have the authority to set rules that govern the local entities.
    As for the ‘plastic bags’, at least in Muskegon County it was promoted by a lone County Commissioner and never reach a formal stage of discussion [Commissioner is now a State Representative so we will see what if he takes it on a critical issue]. There was a statement about cost for cleanup of plastic bags to the County of $15,000, the reference was a contract with an outside company to clean trash [not just plastic bags]. There was never any discussion about how the bags real impact including unintended consequences.

    Without open discussions of each topic it would seem this is more about politics of manipulation rather than about serving the public.

  19. Rick

    Funny how ‘we hate big government’ Repubs suddenly become ‘the state can control all’ when they’re in office.

    This is just one more example of their effort to control all of us, everywhere.

    Remember the ‘universities can’t ban guns on campus’, the ‘grad students can even vote to unionize’, etc.?

    The Repubs really want to just do away with government / democracy and establish a GOP paradise where voting doesn’t matter, local government doesn’t matter and citizen are told what they can do and can’t by a gerrymandered legislature that is bought and sold by the wealthy (a small elite) and corporations. We’re almost there now and this demonstrates that.

  20. Jim

    Local Control most times turns into Local Tyrant for citizens. Too many local elected officials are tin-pot dictators that are elected by far less than 10% of registered voters.

    1. JohnG

      Much better to have local tyrants than national tyrants. You can throw the local tyrants out with a reasonable amount of effort. You can’t throw out the national tyrants except by extraordinary effort. Look at how difficult it was to throw out the Clinton-Obama hegemony, and it’s not clear that even now, we’ll see real reforms at the national level. It’s not clear that the new boss is any different than the old boss, though I hope it is.

      Also, Republicans are standing on pretty thin ground if they advocate handling of abortion or law enforcement at the local level, while prohibiting the same sort of subsidiarity on environmental issues at the local level.

  21. rebecca

    Mr. Heartwell wrote a fine article. His points are well understood and are solid. I am ashamed that some took liberty to say things like the Michigan Observer did, such as he implied that families litter. Really, you think that’s what he meant to say? He’s an articulate man and one who is kind, I don’t think his article said or implied any such criticism. Plastic in the garbage means plastic in a landfill, he’s not criticizing the individual, he’s objecting to plastic. Or more specifically, to allow local communities to make their own decisions about an issue as important as the suffocation and pollution of plastic. Please don’t take such offense to a valid claim, that plastic isn’t biodegradable that while may be a convenient and cheap source of getting consumers what they want, it is vastly irresponsible for many, many reasons.

    1. duane


      You make claims about how bad plastic is even while acknowledging that it serves the needs/wants of people. You seem to believe that the only valid criteria for evaluating any product is whether it is biodegradable.

      Before I will subscribe to your single criteria [the only one you offered] for judging things we use will you explain how you define biodegradable? Does it have to do with the means by which it degrades, UV or microbial, does it have to do with the time [a day, a year, decades, 10,000 millenniums] it takes to degrade, what constitutes acceptable degradation [elemental state, size of debris, texture of debris, being noticeable by the human eye], or whatever your criteria is?

      Mr. Heartwell is articulate, but he seems to assume that readers have his perspective on the issues. He does not make an effort to help us, with other perspectives, he doesn’t try to bring us to a minimum understanding and define the problem/issue, he simply seems to tell us what to think.

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