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Battle of the bags: Clark pushing for local control over plastic bag waste

NORMAN — With a 92 percent participation rate, Norman is already the top recycling city in the state, but Ward 6 council member Breea Clark believes Norman can blaze a new environmental trail by becoming the first city in Oklahoma to take an active role in cutting back on plastic bags.

Non recyclable plastic bags continue to plague facilities like Republic Services which processes Norman’s recyclables. Republic Services Municipal Services Manager Crystal t said plastic bags were once recyclable, but the commodity driven market has made it untenable, especially with China’s announcement earlier this year that it would no longer accept them. 

“There are tons of it and it’s really bad for the recycling stream for a number of reasons,” she said.

Despite the diligence of workers who remove the bags by hand, t said some inevitably make it through, and not without incident.

“The plastic wrap gets wound around the mechanisms of the machines and good recycling gets wrapped up in the plastic, so good recycling has to be thrown out,” she said.

The ones that do make it to landfills will remain there for a long time. Estimates range from 20 to 1,000 years.

For those reasons, Clark is exploring ways to curtail the gear-clogging environmental pariahs.

“I’d love to see Norman take its leadership a step further and become the first to create a model ordinance that proactively addresses how communities deal with plastic bags,” Clark said following a tour of the Batliner Recycling facility in Oklahoma City on Friday.  Mayor Lynne Miller also took the tour.

Clark said no formal action has been taken, yet. She said the next step will be sending the issue to a committee for more study and community feedback.

The good news, she said, is that Norman will get a chance. Oklahoma SB 1465, which aimed to prevent cities from restricting the use of plastic bags, failed to get heard at the Capitol, but Clark said another could be around the corner.

“Pre-emption has clearly been a trend with the Oklahoma State Legislature,” she said. “It wasn’t just us [fighting SB 1465] by any means. The Oklahoma Municipal League fought very hard, we had a lot of support in the community and around the state. Not everybody wanted a plastic bag fee, but this was about local control.”

Former Mayor and Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center Director Cindy Rosenthal said preemption efforts like the failed SB 1465 underscore a deeper problem in state government: legislative measures drafted from afar by entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that actively subvert the will of communities and undermine local control.

She said ALEC was behind Oklahoma’s municipal oil and gas regulation preemption, legislation to stop cities from implementing a higher minimum wage, housing code enforcement, and LGBTQ protections.

Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, authored the bill, but Rosenthal said she doubts the idea originated with them or why, as the bill states, the possibility of municipal plastic bag restrictions would constitute an emergency that needed to be addressed “for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety.”

“What’s in it for [Leewright] for Norman to pass a prohibition on plastic bags? Not much,” she said. “For the most part, voters don’t know … and people in Norman don’t get to vote on the four legislators [who sponsored the bill]. So, it’s a pretty low cost and low risk for some of these sponsoring legislators.

“They do something nice for corporate interests which are nice sources of campaign funds and their own local voters may not care and they certainly usually don’t even know because these issues don’t even resonate in these other communities.”

Despite touting a small government platform that frequently promotes local control, Rosenthal said Oklahoma Republicans tend to check that philosophy at the door when it comes to progressive local control.

“I’m not saying they’re hypocrites, but they’re certainly applying a double standard,” she said.

“It’s very frustrating. Sometimes you try to work within the system to get reasonable modifications of these preemption bills. For instance, we worked closely with Rep. Emily Virgin to add to the oil and gas preemption bill the acknowledgement of city policies aimed at protecting public and private water supplies. That’s what she wanted to add as an amendment to preserve that authority.

“When it came to the floor of the House, the speaker would not even allow her to present her amendment. So, it’s especially frustrating when you try to offer good faith amendments that are reasonable and you still can’t get it done.”

Clark said Norman dodged a bullet with SB 1465 and needs to get to work, both in advocating for local control and continuing to be an environmental leader in the state. She said a bag fee probably makes the most sense, and though some may be reluctant at first, she believes it would be a tiny adjustment for a hefty impact.

“This in an incentive program to minimize the use of a product we can no longer recycle,” she said. “Frankly, it’s common sense at this point.

“Other communities around the nation and around the world have instituted policies. The biggest plastic bag producer is Walmart and Walmart has done this in other communities. It’s not like we’re asking them to do something for the first time. This is not that new of an idea.”

At least one Norman business has already jumped in with both feet. Full Moon Sushi and Bistro owner Alitha Bernal said one of her employees, Jared Gomez, approached her about switching to biodegradable bags.

The restaurant goes through about 800 plastic bags a month, which works out to about 9,600 a year. Bernal said she was happy to entertain to the idea from an environmental standpoint. Then she found out the bags are more cost effective, too.

“They were a lot cheaper than the regular ones, almost half the cost, so we decided we’re going to go that direction,” she said.

She said Full Moon has a particular interest in promoting environmental practices.

“We are all passionate about the environment here,” she said. “We’re always looking at ways to make things better. Next we’re going to look into [biodegradable] containers as well. When you’re coming in and eating a clean food like sushi it’s much more pleasing to know that you’re also being good to the environment.”

Leewright and fellow Republican bill co-sponsors Reps. Tim Downing, Kyle Hilbert and Ryan Martinez did not respond to requests for comment on SB 1465. 

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