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Local View: Legislators looking to pre-empt locals on packaging, health, environment

Minnesota is nationally recognized for its reputation of good government and high voter participation. In that light, it is perplexing why state legislators would actively work to subvert our democratic process.

Several bills — HF3814, SF3253, SF3135 and HF3606 — pending in our Legislature, if enacted, would wrest waste-management authority away from Minnesota cities. Together they would retroactively preempt decision-making on issues that impact the health and welfare of all Minnesotans at the local level, including municipal-compost quality, climate-change mitigation, litter, landfill space, and water quality.

This is concerning because there are many potential remedies. For example, last year, after citizen input and careful deliberation, the City Council in St. Louis Park, Minn., passed an ordinance and leveled the playing field for all food establishments by requiring the use of packaging that is reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Among the many positive outcomes has been a remarkable decrease in plastic contamination of municipal compost.

In 2010, Washington, D.C., instituted a 5-cent fee (not a tax) on single-use carry-out bags, and saw a 60 percent reduction in plastic-bag use in the first year. Its success in reducing litter, climate emissions, and waste generation led to other cities, states, and countries following its lead out of a concern for health.

These experiments in grassroots democracy helped incubate, inform, and strengthen good public policy in communities across our state and nation. They provided a high-bar legislative template as an alternative to a local mandate. It is up to citizens at the local level to decide if they want to adopt similar legislation.

Pre-emption not only undermines our healthy democratic process but harms economic, social, and environmental health. In Minnesota, the harm extends to communities and future generations.

Global business leaders understand this. A recent World Economic Forum report described the need to reconsider how we use materials in our linear "take-make-dispose" economy and the need to accelerate the "circular economy," which is taking shape as "a viable, practical alternative to the current linear economic model."

In Duluth, businesses would save an estimated $2 million annually if consumers were required to pay for their habit of single-use carry-out bag usage. It's a model already embraced by Aldi's, IKEA, and Goodwill.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and our own Western Lake Superior Sanitary District highlight the importance of reduction as the most high-impact component of the reduce-reuse-recycle model for waste.

Late last month at a training for Essentia Health clinicians, we learned how the majority of chemicals used in our day-to-day products are not tested for human health impacts. Clinicians are now seeing evidence in the form of increased diabetes, cancers, thyroid problems, learning disabilities, and infertility.

A new scientific study estimates that the Pacific Ocean garbage patch is 16 times bigger than previously thought. It's four times the size of the state of California and is composed of plastic bottles, plastic toys, and other debris floating in the water.

Locally, research has shown plastic contamination in our St. Louis River and Great Lakes.

At a recent Sea Grant and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources educational forum, attendees learned about the chronic stress and depression now experienced in our region due to climate-related changes in weather.

These and other grim realities challenge us because they undermine the story, or illusion, of a bright future and healthy democracy that works for everyone. They demand self reflection.

Rather than providing a solution, pre-emption illuminates the hidden patterns of influence and control responsible for our dire straits. Pre-emption is illogical and only benefits those businesses with products that are harmful and unsustainable or which lack the necessary creativity and innovation to succeed in a new livable economy that works for all Minnesotans.

In this great transition, we are called to think differently. We need to co-create a new narrative about our relationship with one another and our planet. We need collective wisdom and collaboration to solve our challenges rather than top-down paternalistic approaches.

Pre-emption is old thinking, built on undue power and control. Minnesotans deserve better.

Here in the Northland, we have to ask Sen. Tom Bakk to remove his name as an author. Please call Gov. Mark Dayton and our other elected state officials to ask for their help in stopping these bills and this dinosaur thinking.

Jamie Harvie

Jamie Harvie is executive director of the Duluth-based Institute for a Sustainable Future and serves as coordinator of the Bag it Duluth Campaign for zero waste.

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