The effects of plastic bags in our environment

Citizens of Bisbee after they volunteered to clean up plastic bags and other trash in their town. Photo includes current Mayor David Smith and former Mayor Adriana Badal.  Photo provided by Bisbee Attorney Britt Hanson

The City of Bisbee is economically fueled by tourism, and the problems caused by plastic bags makes it harder for tourists to enjoy.

Plastic bags are made of an ethylene byproduct like natural gas and petroleum, that damages ecosystems in the ocean and on land killing numerous animals.

“They get caught in waterways and block the flow of rainwater runoff, they disintegrate into little tiny pieces and animals get them caught in their stomach,” said Jill Bernstein, executive director of Keep Arizona Beautiful.  “There’s just about a 100,000 different ways plastic bags are damaging the environment.”

As plastic bags are vastly distributed in retail and grocery stores, they continue to cause large environmental problems that destroy marine and land habitats.

In the beginning, as an effort to eliminate the problem, citizens of Bisbee volunteered to clean up the mess, but even that started to become too much.

In an attempt to prevent plastic bags from harming the environment, the City of Bisbee passed ordinance O-13-14 in 2014, which prevents retail and grocery stores from distributing plastic bags and requires customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags, purchase paper bags for a small fee, or not use bags at all.

The plastic bag ban saved the city tax payer dollars, with fewer cleaning crews needed to make sure the streets are plastic bag free.

That was until until Arizona Legislature passed a bill in 2016, which states that a city or town may not, “Impose a tax, fee, assessment, charge or return deposit on a consumer or owner, operator or tenant of a business, commercial building or multifamily housing property for auxiliary containers,” (A.R.S. § 41-194.01).

Since local retailers were charging a small fee for paper bags, they are considered auxiliary containers and therefore illegal under state law.

“I don’t know why the state feels compelled to try and control this or try and deny cities the right to do this,” Bernstein said. “Plastic bags are a detriment to the environment.”

The state bill was introduced by Senator Warren Petersen, who received $24,512.33 from individual contributions and $29,600 from Political committee contributions in 2016.

The Arizona Retailers Association and Arizona Association of Realtors were advocates for HB 2131.  Arizona Retailer Association’s Executive Director Michelle Ahlmer was listed as a supporter for the bill and a speaker if necessary while The Arizona Association of Realtors contributed $2500 in 2016.

The City of Bisbee tried to fight the state legislature, but Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich wrote in his investigative report to Bisbee that the ordinance was a violation of the bill.  The state gave them 30 days to rescind the ordinance, or the state treasurer will withhold their state revenue.

A dirt lot covered in plastic bags and other trash behind the Safeway in Bisbee. Photo provided by Bisbee Attorney Britt Hanson

Bisbee Mayor David Smith said the impact on the city’s budget would have been too much to bear, in regards to how much they receive in state revenue.

“About $1.2 million,” he said. “It goes right into our general fund and it would have been death for us literally, it would have just sealed our fate.”

According to the Arizona State Treasurer’s office, The city of Bisbee would have lost $637,161.23 of urban revenue sharing and $474,698.43 of state sales tax that would have been withheld and redistributed if Bisbee refused to change their ordinance after the 30 day period.

“That would be a death sentence and we can’t go down that route,” said Bisbee Attorney Britt Hanson.  “The council voted to revise the ordinance to make it a voluntary compliance by retailers to distribute plastic bags.”

Hansen said that the local Safeway grocery store and many other retail stores are on board to continue to not distribute plastic bags.


Garrett Green is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona.  Contact him at


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