House Bill 1021 (Senate Bill 431), which prohibits local governments from regulating, prohibiting, or applying fines to single-use plastic items like straws and retail sacks, made it through the state Senate on Thursday fairly handily, by a vote of 23-7, thereby dismaying various environmental organizations who have deplored the deleterious effects of plastic litter on the natural environment.
But opponents of the bill had some hope that that relief might be on the way next year.
Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis)
Among the minority of senators protesting the bill was Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), who said she understood the argument for uniformity of various policies under overriding state authority. But she observed that state government had not set any policy on the matter of plastic litter disposal. And she deplored the increasing tendency of state government to “take away local control” of matters which local legislative bodies have been elected to keep a close watch on. “We shouldn't get in other people’s kitchens when we don’t know the recipe,” she said.
Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) agreed with Akbari, noting that every year the General Assembly seems to approve more “pre-emptive” measures.
Two East Tennessee Republicans added at least some moral support for Akbari and Yarbro. Senator Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) told a story about a friend in the cotton business who complained about plastic litter getting into cotton fiber and spoiling various products. “Yellow Dollar Store bags are worst of all,” he said.
And Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), calling himself a “retro guy” favoring paper products for the sundry items now using plastic, said he would not object to the current bill and promised to introduce legislation in the next session that would set a so far nonexistent state policy on the issue.
Elaborating, Briggs says he's going to consult the National Conference of State Legislators this summer for an idea as to what other states have done. He indicated he favored some sort of ban or restrictions on the use of plastics and invited the Sierra Club and other conservationist groups that opposed the bill passed on Thursday to “buy into” his proposal.
Asked about the prospect of legislation such as what Briggs suggested for next year, Senate Republican leader Jack Johnson indicated that the major issue resolved by the bill’s passage was avoidance of contradictory policies by local governments that might affect companies’ doing business in Tennessee, and that a uniform state policy on environmental issues might be worth consideration. (Briggs had said he wanted to hold businesses to their claim of favoring a uniform state policy as against scatter-shot local measures. Yarbro welcomed the statement as a counter to the Senate majority’s “hypocrisy,” but defined the main issue as being “controlling the locals vs. local control.”
Asked about Briggs’ suggestion, Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, was lukewarm at best, saying that he would probably be hesitant about favoring such a state measure, on grounds that a restrictive state police on use of plastics might increase the price of items to the consumer.
In any case, for at least a year, the state ban will hold. SB 431 is identical to the House version, already passed by the other chamber.