Environmental advocate condemns lawmakers’ attitude toward plastics

Republican lawmakers want to prevent bans on plastic grocery bags. One environmental advocate says that's unfair.


State News

March 4, 2024 - 1:53 PM

Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora discusses Kansas’ plastic pollution during a Feb. 28, 2024, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast. Photo by Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — In Lawrence, plastic grocery bags are scarce after a citywide ban on the product took effect Friday.

But on the state level, Republican lawmakers have vowed to prevent similar bans from going into effect — an attitude one environmental advocate calls unfair.

In a conversation for the Kansas Reflector podcast, Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora condemned legislation banning plastic bans, and gave an overview of other environmental measures up for debate under the dome.

“A lot of the legislation we’re seeing in the Legislature this year kind of comes from different aspects, but there’s no really unifying theme,” Pistora said, discussing the state’s lack of a cohesive energy plan. “One piece of legislation could say something. And then another piece of bill could be something a little bit different.”

The Lawrence plastic bag ban followed city commissioners’ approval of the move in August. Environmental advocates asked for the change, citing plastic pollution, potential microplastic contamination from bags degrading, and animal deaths from eating the bags, among other concerns. The city allows exemptions for other plastic products, such as produce bags and garment bags.

Lawrence’s plastic ban has galvanized state lawmakers, who, for the fourth year in a row, are attempting to ban the ban itself, working to prohibit municipalities from regulating the bags, straws, and single-use containers such as cups, packages, bottles and other packaging through House Bill 2446. The bill is now waiting for action in the Senate after receiving 72-51 approval in the House. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a similar measure in 2022.

“My joke is that they’ve actually recycled the legislation more than the actual plastic bag,” Pistora said. “It’s too bad because the Legislature has heard this bill, they’ve passed it forward. And still they’re offering no statewide response to actually do something about the plastic problem.

“Just for wider context, you know, we have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch out there in the ocean, eight times bigger than the size of Kansas. And that’s just one of five gyres out there in the ocean, just a whirlpool of plastic trash collecting out there from all the plastic waste. We see it on our roadways, we see it in our drainage ditches in Kansas.”

Another area of concern for Pistora is energy policy in the state. He summed up the problem with an analogy: “It feels like we’re trying to go on this long road trip and the passengers in the vehicle aren’t really agreeing. We don’t have any GPS or map on where to go.”

Pistora said state energy discussion is still wavering between sticking to fossil fuels such as coal vs. investing more in solar and wind energy.

Wind made up 47% of the state’s electricity generation in 2022, compared to 32% from coal, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Because of the state’s plains, Kansas ranks in the top five states for wind generation, and had the third-largest share of electricity generated from wind in 2022, following Iowa and South Dakota. Kansas is among the 10 sunniest states in the country, U.S. government data suggests, showing large potential for solar energy.

This conflict is reflected in Senate Bill 455 and House Bill 2588.

HB 2588 would expand capacity for investor-owned utilities to connect customers’ renewable energy generation systems, such as solar panels, to the electric grid. The bill was approved 116-0 by House lawmakers and is waiting for Senate action.

SB 455, among other provisions, would add more regulations to the process of closing down fossil fuel plants, and stipulate that these plants be closed for economic reasons, instead of being closed to achieve “environmental, social, or governmental goals which are not mandated by federal or state laws.” The bill was approved 29-8 by Senate lawmakers and is now waiting for House action.

“Depending on who you ask, we have disagreement on whether we have high electric bills, what fuel sources we need to go to, and whether we need to have government initiatives or the private sector, so on and so forth,” Pistora said. “… We don’t need an instruction manual in terms of an energy plan, but we do need a direction on where to go.”