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Kansas business groups mobilize to stop local plastics bans

JOHN HANNA
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Plastic Trash Kansas

Lobbyists Scott Schneider, left, of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, and Kristi Brown of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, watch as a Kansas House committee debates a bill their groups support on single-use plastic bags and straws, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The bill approved by the committee prohibits cities and counties from banning them for the next five years. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas business groups have mobilized to snuff out a budding movement among a few cities to ban single-use plastic bags and straws, frustrating environmentalists who can't get the Republican-controlled Legislature to tackle climate issues.

The GOP-led House commerce committee on Friday approved a bill that would prevent cities and counties from enacting policies for the next five years to either ban single-use plastic products or impose fees on them. The measure goes next to the full House for debate, possibly as early as next week.

Only a handful of Kansas communities, including Wichita, the state's largest city, and Lawrence, home to the liberal University of Kansas campus, have started considering bans on plastic products. But lobbyists for the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and groups representing grocers, restaurants and convenience stores said they worry that businesses could face a patchwork of local rules that raise costs and create headaches for chains.

The debate in Kansas comes after eight states, including California and New York, have banned single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 15, including neighboring Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma, have stepped in to prevent local officials from enacting such bans. President Donald Trump's re-election campaign has mocked moves toward paper straws.

“I'm all for doing whatever we can to help the environment, but not at the cost of my own personal business and the businesses of many others,” said Republican Rep. Adam Thomas, a Kansas City-area restaurant owner. “When one city does it, more cities will follow.”

The new prohibition on local plastics bans would take effect July 1 and nullify any local ordinances approved before then. Commerce Committee Chairman Sean Tarwater, a Republican and another Kansas City-area business owner, proposed keeping the local plastics bans at bay for five years to give environmentalists, businesses and local officials time to work on a permanent solution that doesn't require a state law.

Tarwater said a permanent restraint on local officials isn't the answer, but neither is allowing “chaos to happen in all the different cities.”

“I stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home last night to get a gallon of milk," Tarwater said. “First thing I saw was a big, huge box of recycled bags.”

Scott Schneider, a lobbyist for restaurant owners, said the industry is fine with a five-year ban because “the marketplace is already solving the problem.”

Residents of Lawrence and Wichita argued during a Thursday hearing that plastic bags are taking up space in landfills and plastic trash is clogging rivers and streams and blighting fields. Environmentalists are especially galled because Republican lawmakers have shown little interest in even debating steps to fight climate change.

“You see all the plastic on the roadways, in the trees, in the parks, in people's fields,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “They're cheap, and they're easy to fly away. They become litter.”

But Thomas, who said he's worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years, said banning plastic products comes with a big cost for businesses.

And Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita area Republican, questioned the sense of handling food in cloth bags.

“I don't want to go to a fast-food restaurant and have them hand me something hot and sweaty and greasy, and I'm supposed to provide a bag that's probably going to have lots of pathogens in it because I haven't washed it in three days,” she said.

Rep. Will Carpenter, another Wichita-area Republican, said if the problem is litter, then lawmakers ought to increase the fines for littering, perhaps up to $1,000.

“It's not the bag. It's the people that threw them out,” he said.

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