Atlantic Cities

Happy New Year! Now Give Up Your Cigarettes, Plastic Bags and Shark Fins

Happy New Year! Now Give Up Your Cigarettes, Plastic Bags and Shark Fins
Flickr/jm3

With the dawning of the new year, cities across the country are also getting a lot of new laws, as long planned changes in public policy on everything from fireworks sales to tobacco use to texting while driving finally go into effect.

You may have long since forgotten that your city council or state legislature voted on these bills and ordinances months ago (and, of course, it’s hardly fair to expect you to remember to bring your own carry-out bag to the grocery store in San Jose if you happen to have a New Year’s hangover).

So we’re offering a primer to help you track some of the many ways city life will be changing in 2012, starting on Jan. 1. Several of these new laws are just downright quirky, the result of local concerns about, say, golf carts that no one shares outside of Georgia. But others reflect much broader movements that are bubbling up from the municipal level, like the creeping nationwide death of the disposable bag, or the rising fear of synthetic marijuana.

In other words, if one of these laws isn't coming to your city this week, it just might next year.

Plastic Bags: San Jose’s single-use carryout bag ordinance goes into effect this week, meaning that grocery and retails stores will no longer be able to offer you one of those cheap plastic sacks at the check-out line. You can either bring your own stylish tote (and we hear they’re really going into fashion), or pay for a recycled paper bag. In Long Beach, meanwhile, an existing plastic bag ban rolls out this week for small retailers.

Texting: Everyone is getting on this hands-free bandwagon, following a national campaign from the Department of Transportation to combat "distracted driving." Ticketing starts this week in Nevada – and this means, you, tourists to Las Vegas – for drivers caught texting or using any kind of handheld phone while at the wheel.

Fake pot: Chicago made it illegal two weeks ago to sell synthetic marijuana inside the city, and a statewide ban that will affect the suburbs and other cities throughout Illinois goes into effect this week. If you’re not familiar with the stuff, it looks like herbal incense and sometimes goes by the name “spice,” but is way worse for you than both of these things.

Minimum wage: In the city of San Francisco this week, minimum wage goes up to a pretty respectable $10.24 an hour (up from $9.92 in 2011). This makes San Francisco the first U.S. city to top the $10 mark.

Smoking: Pasadena has an interesting new no-smoking law that extends traditional prohibitions in public places to multi-family residential units. The ban has already gone into effect for new construction of condos and apartments, and starting this week, all new lease agreements will include information on the ordinance banning smoking in both private units and common areas (including balconies and patios) by 2013.

Fireworks: Maine passed a bill over the summer legalizing fireworks, but towns throughout the state were given the option of adopting the free-for-all or implementing their own restrictions (essentially re-banning fireworks on the local level). The new law takes effect this week, but while many towns have opted to embrace the fireworks, Portland and Bangor have not.

Tanning: In cities throughout the state of California, it becomes illegal [PDF] this week for children under the age of 18 to use ultraviolet tanning devices. We expect this will be a big drag on the pre-prom market.

Shark fins: Sorry, hucksters anywhere in Oregon [PDF] or California [PDF] you no longer get to possess, sell, trade or distribute shark fins. Anyone caught with one for scientific purposes must have a license.

Golf carts: We weren’t kidding. Apparently a lot of people in Georgia want to drive their golf carts as if they were cars. The new state law establishes standards towns and counties must meet if they want to create ordinances permitting golf carts on residential roads. Among other things, the carts must have brakes, horns, tail lamps and a maximum weight of 1,375 pounds.

Construction debris: The city of Highland Park, Illinois, is trying to get construction waste out of its landfills and will require 50 percent of all such debris be recycled or diverted from the trash dump for projects that submit a permit application as of Jan. 1.

Civil unions: As of this week, residents of Wilmington and throughout Delaware can start getting civil unions, which will be recognized by the state as a legal relationship on par with marriage. In Hawaii, meanwhile, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples are eligible for civil unions as of this week.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user jfc.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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