End Plastics

How preemptive laws in the U.S. are trashing the planet

When it comes to plastic pollution, many cities want to clean up their act. But current laws make that impossible.

In 17 states, not only is there no statewide ban or fee on single-use plastics — there’s a law that makes it illegal to pass such rules at the local level. This law is grouped into a category called preemptive legislation, and not surprisingly, it’s a strategy favored by plastic industry lobbyists.

These lobbyists find more favorable ears in state legislatures than in local governments where “traditionally, the strongest and most innovative… control policies have emerged… often after long and hard-fought grassroots community efforts,” according to the Public Healthcare Law Center.

This is a problem because progressive towns and cities, facing the brunt of the impacts of plastic pollution, are blocked from doing anything to solve their own problems on a local level by more backward-thinking state governments.

This strategy of statewide laws preventing local ordinances on specific issues is not new, but it’s a tactic used by a somewhat unsavory group of characters throughout recent history.

As anti-tobacco groups around the country started to gain power and influence, lobbyists for the tobacco industry pushed for states to pass preemption laws that prohibited local municipalities from passing their own rules regarding indoor air quality, product labeling requirements and taxation.

Similarly, the National Rifle Association has long frustrated gun regulation advocates by passing state-level laws preempting municipalities from passing more stringent reforms.

In an opinion piece published in USA Today, three mayors — then Mayor of Tallahassee Andrew Gillum, Mayor of Pittsburgh Bill Peduto and Mayor of Portland Ted Wheeler — wrote, “There’s no doubt about the need for thoughtful new gun ordinances. Mayors across the country are ready to pass them, enhancing public safety in our cities. But we can’t — because our states have banned us from enacting local gun laws.”

In another example, natural gas companies have successfully pushed for state laws preempting local governments from preventing fracking operations within their borders. Small towns with limited financial resources have little sway with state lawmakers that are heavily influenced by powerful special interests. These towns are left to deal with unsafe water and dangerous emissions while any challenges to the opposed developments play out in court.

Across the country, preemption legislation has been used to interfere with “local efforts to raise wages, pass paid sick time and non-discrimination ordinances and adopt fracking and environmental regulations. Lawmakers are using preemption to overturn elections, perpetuate racial and economic inequality, and silence local voices” according to the three mayors.

Plastic pollution is a problem that impacts every corner of the planet. Microplastic particles have been found in the Rocky Mountainsthe Pyreneesand the remote arctic. A recent study estimates that we consume the equivalent of one credit card worth of plastic every week. Marine wildlife continues to die from entrapment in and accidental consumption of plastic waste. The carbon footprint associated with plastic production and disposal is enormous and only growing.

We can’t continue to allow billion-dollar corporations to influence our plastic legislation so drastically. Our laws don’t align with our ideals because we are misled about our options in the voting booth or because we are not allowed any options at all. It’s imperative to continue to educate ourselves and our communities as much as possible and to use resources to push back against the plastics industry every chance we get.

Learn more at Earth Day Network’s End Plastic Pollution campaign and join EARTHRISE, the largest, most diverse global mobilization in history in defense of the environment.