Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Voters may have an opportunity to choose whether to ban some single-use plastics in the City of Missoula, thanks to a court ruling that overturned a recent state law.

On Thursday, members of the Families for a Livable Climate Beyond Plastics Working Group submitted a petition to the Missoula County Elections Office that could put an initiative on the November ballot to regulate some single-use plastics.

If passed, the ordinance would prevent any city government facility or business within the Missoula city limits from providing single-use plastic bags and polystyrene items such as foam cups, food containers or packing peanuts.

The law would also prevent food vendors from giving out plastic straws or beverage stirrers unless requested by a customer. The ordinance would go into effect a year from now.

“By taking action at the local level to reduce plastic, we’re not only doing what is best for our environment, but also what is best for our communities now and in the future,” said Jeremy Drake, Missoula leader in the national Zero Waste movement, in a release. “This action is consistent with the City of Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY Pathway to Zero Waste Plan and will help move the city closer to its Zero Waste goal.”

For the initiative to be included on the ballot, the Missoula County Elections Office must approve the petition – which can take up to 21 days – and then proponents must collect 9,300 signatures from registered Missoula voters by mid-August.

That’s not much time, but the working group members were originally hindered by a state law. The 2021 Legislature passed House Bill 407, which banned ballot initiatives that regulated single-use plastics. The Montana Retail Association wrote and supported the bill because the association members, especially those with stores in multiple towns, didn’t want a hodgepodge of plastic regulations across the state.

Prior to the 2023 Legislature, Missoula and Bozeman passed resolutions asking legislators to lift the ban. But when a bill, House Bill 413, was brought forward to reverse the ban, it received no support from Republicans. House Bill 638 would have regulated styrofoam but it also died.

In December, nine plaintiffs, including local Working Group members Drake, Liz Ametsbichler, Mary Stranahan and Youpa Stein, went to court for an injunction to lift the ban, after one of the plaintiffs was prevented from submitting a ballot initiative to ban plastics in Gallatin County. Other plaintiffs live in Bozeman and Billings.

Cottonwood Environmental Law Center attorney John Meyer argued that the Montana Constitution accords all power to the people, and while the legislature can pass laws, “the people reserve to themselves the powers of initiative and referendum.” He also argued that cities should be allowed to ban plastics to guarantee the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

On March 19, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Michael McMahon sided with the Families for a Livable Climate Beyond Plastics Working Group on their right to petition for ballot initiatives.

“HB 407 seeks to statutorily rewrite Montana citizens’ constitutional right to submit initiatives to the voters,” McMahon wrote. “The Court agrees with plaintiffs that HB 407 unconstitutionally infringes upon their expressly reserved power of local ballot initiative.”

The proposed ordinance regulating some single-use plastic. (Courtesy photo)

The proposed ordinance regulating some single-use plastic. (Courtesy photo)

McMahon agreed, issuing his final motion on May 6, saying “if the issue is not certified and the measure is not placed on the ballot, but Plaintiffs ultimately prevail on appeal or on their other claims, then the most fundamental democratic right of citizens will have been denied precisely during the period in which they must be exercised: during a general election.”

McMahon’s May 6 ruling finally allowed proponents of plastic bans to start the ballot initiative process, but they had already lost months when they could have been gathering signatures. Bozeman residents filed their similar petition with the Gallatin County Elections Office on May 1 and the Missoula filing followed on May 9.

“Judge McMahon’s recent ruling gives Montanans the opportunity to both exercise our rights as citizens and to perform our constitutional duty to maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment by reducing the harms of plastics,” said Youpa Stein, Arlee resident and Families for a Livable Climate Beyond Plastics Working Group co-chair, in a release.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

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