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Missoula wants to regulate single-use plastics, but Legislature in the way

Posted at 4:05 PM, Jan 26, 2023

MISSOULA - The Missoula City Council on Wednesday became the first in what's expected to be many Montana cities asking the Legislature to restore local control to communities — a right that was lost with a sweeping bill passed two years ago.

At the heart of the request, the city wants back the authority to regulate single-use plastics, including plastic bags, straws, stirrers and polystyrene containers. Other states have already done so but Montana has not, leaving many residents in the state's larger cities frustrated as the "plastic impact" mounts.

“As we were looking at banning plastic bag use, and because other communities were going down that road, the Legislature specifically took that control away from local communities,” said council member Gwen Jones. “At some point, the pendulum will swing back, but I hope it's in single-digit years, not double digit. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is thinking.”

Legislative overreach?

The Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 407 in 2021. It was billed as a “ban on bans,” a single act that impacted cities across the state and their ability to govern based on the wishes of their constituents.

Two years later, Missoula and other cities are now lobbying to regain some of that control to regulate local issues like zoning and plastics. The Missoula City Council is urging the Legislature to repeal HB 407 if it fails to pass legislation of its own banning single-use plastics.

“Communities know what their constituents want. I hope with this and a group of other things that we're able to get back some of that local control in our community,” said council member Amber Sherrill.

Missoula had the opportunity to pass such legislation nearly four years ago when it began exploring potential ordinances or voluntary programs that would ban or limit single-use plastic bags.

At the time, 349 cities across the country had already implemented such policies, and Missoula was about to join them. One study estimated that a single-use shopping bag has a 12-minute lifespan but will take up to 1,000 years to decompose depending on the environmental conditions.

“It doesn't seem to be a good use of resources,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “But we can't have that deep dive into the conversation in our community because of the actions of the Legislature.”

The City Council never adopted a policy when it had the chance. The Legislature went on with its ban on all bans — a ban in itself — including plastic.

“I have long worried about the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our lives,” said Missoula resident Liz Spika. “They are not just an eyesore on the landscape or cityscape, but that they're also an ominous and imminent danger to our health.”

Plastic is now everywhere

Plastic is everywhere in Montana, with water bottles floating down rivers, plastic bags hung up on trees and fencing, and utensils left on sidewalks and gutters to crumble and wash away.

It may be bad for both the environment and personal health, studies have found.

On the health front, Harvard University found that certain chemicals in plastic can leach into the food and beverages humans eat. Some of those chemicals have been linked to a long list of health problems including obesity, cancer and reduced fertility.

On the environmental front, a Montana study found that mocroplastics now infest roughly 90% of Montana waterways. Conducted by Environment Montana and a team of university interns, the study tested 50 waters across the state and all but a few turned up positive for plastic fibers, filaments and film.

Samples of water taken from across Montana turned up an abundance of plastic microfibers.

By 2050, scientists estimate that plastic will outweigh all the fish in the ocean, posing great risk to the planetary food chain. Plastic fibers also have turned up inland. A recent study found plastics in rain samples in the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains and French Pyrenees.

The abundance of plastic doesn't surprise Mary Mulcaire-Jones, a Missoula resident who picks up the plastic she sees on her morning walks.

“Plastic bottles have been run over, plastic forks or spoons have been run over or stepped on and are in a thousand pieces,” she said. “There's a lot of plastic on the street.”

Right to self-govern

Members of the Legislature, which is governed by Republicans, have lamented at times about overreach from Washington, D.C., and congressional meddling in state affairs. States, they have long contended, are better apt at managing local issues.

But a growing number of cities in Montana see hypocrisy in that position, especially as the Legislature centers power in Helena and quashes the right of cities to self-govern.

The Missoula resolution asking the Legislature to restore that power passed the City Council on Wednesday on a 9-1 vote, with only council member Sandra Vasecka in opposition.

She said the Legislature should decide the fate of plastic in the city, not Missoula.

“I believe local control is about protecting individual liberties. Local governments can fail at this and become instruments of over taxation, over regulation and intrusion,” Vasecka said. “The majority of our neighboring states have uniformity for auxiliary container resolutions. I think we should follow suit and I won't be in favor of this.”