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'Local power': Billings plaintiffs celebrate judge striking down 'ban on bans'

Helena judge ruled HB407 unconstitutional
A plastic cup on the ground
Posted at 7:59 PM, Mar 21, 2024

BILLINGS — This week in Helena, a major decision was made in state district court, ruling House Bill 407—passed in 2021—unconstitutional.

HB407 banned local governments from regulating single-use plastics, among other restrictions. Last year, nine Montanans joined forces with Cottonwood Environmental Law Center challenging the law, which included two Billings plaintiffs.

Katie Harrison, founder of SustainaBillings and owner of Sweetwater Café, was among the group of plaintiffs.

Katie Harrison
Katie Harrison

“We’re a month out from Earth Day," Harrison said on Thursday. "This is a great way to get into Earth Month. It’s just really thrilling."

At Sweetwater Café, located inside Rock 31 at 201 N. Broadway, customers come up with all kinds of superlatives to describe the eatery's commitment to sustainability, which was the inspiration for the lawsuit over HB407.

"Wonderful, charming, healthy,” described Jane Van Dyk, who stopped by Sweetwater with friends on Thursday.

Dee Dee (left) Pat (center) Jane (right)
Dee Dee (left) Pat (center) Jane (right)

Menu items are made from scratch daily. The café prioritizes fresh, local ingredients and environmentally conscious options.

"My favorite thing to make here is my homemade pasta that I make from scratch. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to be making until I come into the café," said Harrison. "When we start reusing and looking at what we think as disposable items differently, you will start seeing savings in your pocket."

You won’t find any single-use plastics at Sweetwater.

Compostable straws at Sweetwater Cafe
Compostable straws at Sweetwater Cafe

"I am composting... I’m using compostable straws... I’ve gotten plant-based plastic cups," Harrison said. "I try to wash and reuse everything that I possibly can that is in a sanitary and safe and hygienic way.”

It’s a move that could soon be seen across Yellowstone County following Tuesday's striking down of HB407, a bill that Harrison called the 'ban on bans'.

Motion granted
Motion granted

"The state should not be deciding for us, unanimously, on every issue. We should be able to decide for ourselves and have a say in things,” Harrison said. “We should have local power. And if the state can pass legislation after legislation all on their own without voters' say, that’s like authoritarianism."

Judge Mike McMahon of Lewis and Clark District Court in Helena ruled HB407 unconstitutional.

"It took me a minute to process, we won. And it still doesn’t seem real to me,” Harrison said. "We really, really needed this. Montana needed this. The Earth needs it."

But the battle isn’t over yet. It’s now on local citizens to get single-use plastic initiatives onto ballots in local elections, which require petitions and signatures.

A plastic cup on the ground
A plastic cup on the ground

"So that voters can decide for themselves what they want to do about certain single-use plastics. This decision is not a blanket, ‘Oh, single-use plastics are going to be outlawed overnight.’ This is just allowing citizens in Montana to be able to vote on plastics one way or another,” Harrison said.

For now, the decision lies on local businesses, with places like Sweetwater Café leading the charge for change.

Sweetwater Cafe inside of Rock 31
Sweetwater Cafe inside of Rock 31

"I’ve gotten plant-based plastic cups into Shamrock Distribution Center. And those are the same plant-based plastic cups that are being used at the Pub Station. And so we’re all sharing this information with each other, trying to inspire," Harrison said. "Demand that your warehouses and your food distributors start carrying compostables. Start thinking about the earth when you are making these purchases and these decisions. And you will definitely feel better about yourself and so will your customers as well."

And its customers aren’t far behind.

"I'm sick when I see empty water bottles all over. They’re all ending up as garbage," said Pat Burg. "And people who buy them think, ‘Oh, all I have to do is put them in a recycling bin and I’m good to go. I’m being consciences.’ Not true."

“I pick up more plastic water bottles and beer cans when I walk that it’s just amazing,” said Dee Dee Chiesa.

To read MTN's original report with Harrison and former Billings City Councilman Danny Choriki, click here.

Harrison and Choriki
Harrison and Choriki

Harrison wanted to let the community know about a few upcoming Earth Day events with SustainaBillings:

"Earth Day 2024 at The Loft on April 20th. Sponsored by High Mountain," Harrison said. "Our sustainable fashion show where you’ll have a lot of local designers and even people who are not designers who just want to participate in the fashion show (will be there). And there is even a thrift category. So even if you just want to put together a cool, thrifted outfit, you can be in the fashion show. But you have to sign up."

SustainaBillings is also currently raising money for Tumbleweed.

“We're trying to get $20,000 raised for Tumbleweed, which is trying to get a kitchen built. The fire marshall, to what I’ve understood, has said that they cannot continue feeding people, which in their case means the youth, until they get a kitchen built," said Harrison. "So this is really urgent. Billings needs to step up. You can see me or you can check out SustainaBillings' Facebook page for donation opportunities."