Tennessee leaders prohibit local governments from being able to issue bans on single-use pollutants

Last updated on February 3, 2024.

I know. That doesn’t make any sense.

I read this article and was thoroughly confused at first. Why on Earth would anyone vote for such legislation?

Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, showing a crumbled plastic water bottle below the title.
Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.

The physical copy’s headline is “Protecting Plastic” and is on the front page of the newspaper. The first sentence summarizes:

A surprise amendment to a state bill would make it illegal for municipalities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for many single-use plastic items that have polluted Tennessee waterways at an alarming rate.

This ridiculous measure was added on at the last minute. “The bill is being passed as an amendment to a totally unrelated bill, which pertains to county district boundary maps.”

The article, “Amendment to Tennessee bill would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single-use pollutants,” explains that House Bill 1021 is just that. This would mean that there could be no single-use disposable plastic ban in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There could be no plastic bag ban in Knox or Davidson County. No city or county would be able to lead the way for the rest of the state with a ban. And the State of Tennessee, so far, has no interest in producing legislation banning these types of materials.

They are called “single-use pollutants” for a reason

Often made of plastic, single-use items are created specifically to be purchased and used only one time by the consumer. The consumer then disposes of the item. Even if the consumer recycled that item, we know that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled.

Many single-use items surround food, convenience foods specifically. Here, I define convenience foods like fast foods, processed and packaged foods, convenience store foods, and take-out foods.

Single-use items made of plastic include:

    • Straws
    • Disposable drink cups
    • Fast-food or take-out containers
    • Plastic utensils for take-out or fast food
    • Single drink bottles (soda, water, juice)
    • Coffee cups and plastic cups from coffee and juice bars
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.

In addition to those, think of single-use plastic bags. Feel free to read my posts on the film Bag It or on one southern coastal town that took measures in 2018 to ban single-use plastic bags to protect the environment. I think we should be thinking the same thing, and I know many agree.

Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River.
I found this plastic bag in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Shortly after the [City of San Jose] imposed its Bring Your Pwn Bag Ordinance in 2012, single-use plastic bag debris decreased by 89 percent in storm drains and 60 percent in creeks and rivers. Bag bans work.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau

The Tennessee River is already polluted with microplastics

In a study published late last year, a German scientist revealed at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute that there is an extreme amount of plastics and microplastics in the Tennessee River. More than other large rivers with larger populations. And that river leads straight to the Gulf, dumping those plastics into the ocean as well. So why would we stop local governments from trying to do the right thing by protecting the environment, along with human health? Why are we protecting plastic?

Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River, showing bridge and opposite shore in background.
Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Aquarium. I was able to fish it out. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Single use plastics clog our stormwater systems, pollute our waterways, kill wildlife and eventually result in microplastics in our water system,” the Tennesse chapter of the Sierra Club wrote. “Local communities know best how to handle their unique challenges with single-use plastics, and unless the state wants to enact a ban across Tennessee, the General Assembly should stay out of their way.”

Politics

Regardless of political party, if you’re a Tennessean, you are most likely connected to the outdoors. Whether it’s fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or boating, Tennesseans love our outdoor activities. And we like to share them with the tourists who visit here. We want to protect tourism in large and small cities in Tennessee, many of which are connected to the Tennessee River. So what sense does it make to jeopardize our beautiful outdoor spaces by proposing legislation to make the environmental problems worse?

State Representative Susan Lynn explained that regulations and bans surrounding single-use pollutants should only be implemented at the state level. Local governments should not because they “stand to create a patchwork of very confusing local regulations that make it really hard to run a business and very expensive.” Obviously, I completely disagree. That leaves no place for one municipality to lead the way for the rest.

Tennessee Senator Mike Bell supports the bill as well. He advocates for uniform state regulations regarding business. He claimed in that article that Tennessee was rated “Number 1” in the nation for small businesses in recent years. I searched the internet to verify this information and was unable to find information. I did not that find a source that even places Tennessee in the top 5, including reputable sources such as Forbes and Fortune.

Another supporter of banning plastic bans

Grant Kidwell, the Director of energy, environment, and agriculture task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said he does not believe bans are the right way to deal with the pollutants. ALEC is a non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators “dedicated to the principles of limited government.” However, placing a ban on bans at the state level is not limited government – isn’t that over-governing?

Kidwell’s work has focused mainly on energy, although he’s written at least one article before arguing that there are too many bad food and plastic bag policies. Even so, he wrote that “the type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers.” Great, let the people decide. But don’t stop them from advocating for a local ban through state legislation.

“We believe it’s better to try to improve public waste collection.,” Kidwell also said. Clearly, he does not understand that our waste management systems are broken. Or that single-stream recycling systems are inherently dysfunctional.

Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. Plastic salad container with greens, plastic wrapped plastic utensils, a juice box, and condiments in plastic containers.
Photo of a Chick-fil-A fast food meal I had last year while traveling. I no longer eat at Chick-fil-A, and I now also try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Oil

The real worry is that those protecting plastics are really trying to protect oil and natural gas interests. Plastics are made from both materials, petroleum and natural gas. Companies producing petroleum and plastic products will protect their interests, and often over any environmental or human health concern. The United States is the largest consumer of oil by nation, consuming nearly 913.3 million metric tons of oil in 2017. We are also the largest natural gas consumers in the world.

What can you do?

I called both of my representatives’ offices to oppose the bill, and my messages were “passed along.” However, I am sad to report that House Bill 1021 passed the House and Senate and Governor Bill Lee signed it into law on April 12, 2019.

But you can ban single-use disposable plastics from your own life. Avoid purchasing single-use products!

Feel free to leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you for reading.

 

Footnotes:

 

Have you seen WALL-E?

Last updated on February 5, 2023.

Wall-E cover art

Have you seen the Disney-Pixar movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash.

Even though it’s a decade old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so badly that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home (like Ariel does in The Little Mermaid, collecting items from shipwrecks and keeping them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash.

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her own mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

That sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash.

Sadly, in the movie, the humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart or Amazon that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home.

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do get it. I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people will want to change things. So help spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading!

Support “The Story of Plastic”

Last updated on April 23, 2023.

Rows and rows of yellow rubber duckies on shelves.
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash.

Update 4/23/2023: This film was released in April 2020 and premiered on the Discovery Channel on April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This is an informative and well-presented film on plastics – I highly recommend it!


Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film (linked below) that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.

They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, and the health hazards. Here’s the trailer:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscapes. The Earth is so beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer. Only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in the food we eat and the water we drink.

plastic bottles, rope, and other waste on the beach.
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind-the-scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.

 

Additional Resources:

Website, how to watch The Story of Plastic

Film, The Story of Stuff

Book Review: One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia

Last updated on December 23, 2022.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay book cover

There are inspirational and motivated women all over the world. Women who amaze us, withstand the negativity and overcome the obstacles she faces.

I discovered One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul, at my local library. Upon reading this book to my son, I was really impressed with this story. Check to see if your local library offers it!

After reading the book I wanted more information about Isatou Ceesay.

I felt that she is so inspirational that I should dedicate a whole post to her. She has been committed to upcycling plastic bags and reducing waste in The Gambia since the 1990s. The waste problem in The Gambia really bothered her. Plastic and trash were everywhere. The landscape was littered. People used plastic to make fires burn faster, but the toxins released in the fumes from burning plastic are unimaginable. She decided she would find a way to recycle or upcycle some of the plastic waste.

More than just recycling

But her story is not just about recycling and plastic. It’s also about empowering women and improving the standard of living! The book tells the story at a children’s level about how she had to work in secret in the beginning because it was illegal for women to work at the time, and people ridiculed her. But she began making recycled plastic bag purses. Isatou hired a few women to help and hired more as time went on, even establishing a women’s cooperative to craft and sell the items for income. The business kept growing and it helped the environment, the people, and the economy.

Isatou also helped co-found The Women’s Initiative Gambia whose mission is: “Women’s Initiative Gambia helps financially poor women in The Gambia to improve their skills and income so as to raise the standard of living of their families and their communities.” Today they have many projects beyond plastic bag recycling, including briquette making as a fuel source, gardening, tie-dye and batik, recycled paper bead making, food preservation, and many other projects.

Here’s a quick video highlighting Isatou Ceesay’s accomplishments:

“I think that when you abuse your environment, you abuse yourself.” -Isatou Ceesay

DIY Opportunity

And if you have too many plastic bags yourself and want to make a plastic bag crocheted purse? She’s got a how-to video! I’ll update this post if I try it. And if any of you try this, please message me or leave a comment below! I can’t wait to see what you’ve done!

“People thought I was too young and that women couldn’t be leaders. I took these things as challenges; they gave me more power. I didn’t call out the problems – I called out solutions.” -Isatou Ceesay

Well said. I think we should all have that attitude. Let’s be the change together!

Footnotes: