City board to hear proposal on restricting plastic bags in Lawrence

Three local environmental groups are taking to the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board next week a proposal to restrict single-use shopping bags by banning them or imposing a fine on shoppers who use them.

Members of the Sustainability Action Network, the Sierra Wakarusa Group and the Lawrence Environmental Teams United for Sustainability (LETUS) decided it was time to “stop talking and explore some actions,” said Thad Holcombe, a member of the Sierra group.

The item is on the advisory board’s agenda for its Wednesday meeting. Representatives from the environmental groups will present board members with a memorandum on the issue.

The memorandum specifically asks that the city create an ordinance imposing fees on single-use bags, paper and plastic, but the groups are open to other ideas.

“The proposal really is about initiating a conversation to include grocery store owners, the chamber of commerce, the City Commission, anybody that might be affected,” Holcombe said. “We really want to have an open conversation about the possibilities.”

Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Lawrence and Douglas County, said the 10-member Sustainability Advisory Board would decide after the presentation whether to look into the issue further.

Part of the board’s mission is to advocate for city policies that support sustainability.

If the board decides to continue the conversation, it would be a multimonth process, Horn said.

“Plastic bag bans are complicated and contentious sometimes,” Horn said. “It will be a long conversation and involve a lot of public comment, and the City Commission if it gets serious.”

The board has not previously considered taking action against single-use shopping bags, Horn said, but it has been mentioned when other communities enact bans.

Dozens of communities across the country have created ordinances either banning single-use bags or imposing fees on them.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is the first to impose a ban at the state level on single-use plastic bags. That ban took effect in July.

Several other states have taken different actions, such as promoting the use of paper bags, mandating retailers have in-store recycling programs and restricting plastic bags in certain areas, such as North Carolina’s outer banks.

No community in Kansas has restrictions on single-use shopping bags, but a few have tried.

Prairie Village started studying a possible ban or fine late last year. Earlier attempts to ban plastic bags in Garden City and Roeland Park failed.

It is not sure yet whether the action will get traction in Lawrence.

Plastic bags are not accepted in the city’s curbside recycling program.

The Merc Co-op voluntarily stopped providing single-use plastic bags in 2011 but continued to carry disposable, recycled paper bags.

Jim Lewis, owner of Checkers Foods, said the plastic bags provided at his store are biodegradable.

“We went that route a long time ago,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what consumers are worried about, because they’re made out of biodegradable material.”

Horn said the issue was “outside the scope” of what the Sustainability Advisory Board recently selected as its 2015-16 key initiatives: energy efficiency, land use and water conservation.

But Holcombe and Teresa Wilke, the member of Sustainability Action Network who drafted the memorandum, said the time is right.

“It’s a mess. It’s really a mess,” Wilke said. “I’m optimistic we can decide that, with enough encouragement, people can learn to keep reusable bags. I think every little bit is going to begin to make a difference.”