City leaders to discuss enforcement, fines and cost of proposed ban on single-use plastic bags

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

A cart of groceries in plastic bags is pictured Thursday, June 30, 2022, at a Lawrence grocery store.

After expressing support earlier this year for moving forward with a ban on single-use plastic bags, city leaders will soon review particulars of a draft ordinance, including the process, fines and costs associated with enforcing the ban.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will receive an update on the single-use plastic bag draft ordinance and provide direction to city staff regarding potential next steps. The city estimates it will cost about $31,000 annually to enforce the ban, and a structure for fines for violations has been laid out.

The commission expressed support for moving forward with a ban on single-use plastic bags in January following more than four years of intermittent review and discussion. At that time, the commission directed staff to work on an ordinance, which would need to cover how the ban would be enforced. City Attorney Toni Wheeler said at that time there could be budget implications for enforcement and that any additional expenses would need to be approved by the commission.

According to a memo to the commission, the city would need to hire additional staff in its planning and development services department to enforce a ban. That department already enforces various other codes. The department is requesting an additional full-time code compliance officer as part of the upcoming 2024 budget, which would cost the city $94,000 total, accounting for that person’s salary, benefits and use of a city vehicle. The memo states that initially about one-third of the code officer’s time would be spent enforcing the plastic-bag ban, or the equivalent of about $31,333, with the remainder of the time spent on other code enforcement.

“If the single-use plastic bag ban is approved but additional staffing in the Planning & Development Services Department is not approved, the City would not have the staffing resources to provide enforcement of the single-use plastic bag ban,” the memo states.

The draft ordinance details both the environmental and operational costs of single-use plastic bags for the city, as well as the process and fine structure for enforcing the ban.

The draft states that it is estimated that Lawrence residents use and discard between 29 million and 36 million single-use disposable plastic bags annually, and that the manufacture of bags has significant global environmental consequences, including the over-use of precious natural resources and the generation of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. The draft ordinance also speaks to the harm caused to animals that ingest the bags and how bags degrade into micro-plastics that subsequently contaminate food and water supplies and pose significant human health risks.

The draft also speaks to the direct harm plastics bags pose for the city. Though some grocery stores collect plastic bags for recycling, the city’s single-stream recycling service does not accept them because they clog the sorting machinery. The draft ordinance states discarded single-use disposable plastic bags create a burden on the city’s solid waste disposal program, thereby increasing the cost of that service to city residents. The use of single-use plastic bags also “significantly affects the City’s environment, polluting the City’s streets, sidewalks, open areas, and waterways.” It is estimated that the operational, environmental and social costs of the use of single-use disposable plastic bags to the city is between 11 cents and 20 cents per bag.

If the City Commission ultimately decides to adopt the ordinance, the draft states that in order to reduce the harmful impact of single-use plastic bags, the governing body must find that it is in the best interests of city residents and the city’s environment to regulate their use within the city.

The ordinance would prohibit single-use disposable plastic bags, defined as any bag less than 4 mils thick — about the thickness of a piece of paper — provided to a consumer by an establishment for the purpose of transporting food, beverages, goods or other merchandise. The ordinance would cover grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses or establishments that provide single-use bags at checkout. It would not include single-use plastic bags used for produce or reusable bags made of plastic that are designed for repeated use.

More specifically, the draft ordinance has an exception for produce and “product” bags, which it defines as any disposable plastic bag used exclusively to carry produce, meats, fish or seafood, frozen foods, breads, pastries, nuts, candy, flowers, prepared foods, jewelry and bulk items from their location within a business or other establishment to the point of sale or distribution. The draft states such bags are used to prevent damage or contamination from other items and are then placed within a reusable bag or within a single-use disposable paper bag.

Regarding enforcement, the draft ordinance states that if a city code enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that an establishment is violating the ban, then an initial warning will be issued. The warning will advise the establishment about the violation and that any future violation may result in the prosecution of any person who owns, manages, operates or otherwise controls the establishment. Future violations would be subject to an ascending level of fines as follows: $100 for a first conviction; $200 for a second conviction; and $500 for a third or any subsequent conviction occurring within one calendar year of the first conviction.

The ordinance “strongly encourages” establishments to provide consumers reusable bags, either free of charge, for sale or upon deposit. Establishments may also provide single-use disposable paper bags.

Apart from a ban, some grocery stores and chains have already eliminated the use of plastic bags or announced plans for doing so. Kroger, which operates Dillons grocery stores, announced plans in 2018 to phase out single-use plastic bags and transition to reusable bags across its stores by 2025. ALDI will eliminate single-use plastic bags from all its stores by the end of this year; its Lawrence stores have already done so. The Merc Coop, a locally owned grocery store, eliminated the use of plastic bags in 2013; customers get a 5 cent credit for bringing a reusable bag, and paper bags and/or cardboard boxes (from produce and other food deliveries) are available free of charge for customers’ use. In communications with the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board in December 2021, representatives for Hy-Vee and Checkers grocery stores said they did not have plans to eliminate plastic bags at that time, but they did offer alternatives, such as reusable bags or bags made from recycled material.

The possibility of a local ordinance regarding plastic bags has been in discussion for more than four years. A group of elementary students from Kennedy Elementary brought their concerns about the harmful impact of plastic bags on the environment to the City Commission in 2018. The city’s Sustainability Advisory Board subsequently considered the topic and submitted a recommendation in 2019 for a 16 cent per bag fee for both plastic and paper bags. The commission then directed city staff to look into options related to both fees and bans, but the process was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for state legislation prohibiting such regulations.

After the state legislation failed to move forward in 2020 (subsequent attempts were also made in 2022 and 2023), the commission asked the board to restart the discussion in May 2021. The board then took up the issue again and moved away from the idea of a fee. The board voted in June 2022 to recommend an ordinance that would ban single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other businesses.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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