An early look at how Lawrence businesses might comply with the 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.

It’s taken years of discussion to pass an ordinance in Lawrence banning single-use disposable plastic bags, and there’s still another five months to go before it officially takes effect March 1, 2024.

For at least some of the types of businesses that’ll be impacted by the ban here in Lawrence, there are already some indicators of how that change might look. For others, though, it may be a little too soon to tell.

In early August, the Lawrence City Commission adopted Ordinance No. 9996, which broadly bans the kind of plastic bags one might currently use to transport their purchases home from the grocery store, and also sets a fine structure for establishments that violate the ban. The ban applies to all but a small set of exemptions, including plastic bags used for newspapers, prescription drugs or produce.

Small businesses are not one of those exemptions, and worries about how the ban would affect them was part of why one city leader, Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, voted against the ordinance when it was considered both in June and August. In June, Finkeldei said he was concerned about the impact on “small businesses, our restaurants, our small retailers.”

Many of the sorts of businesses Finkeldei described are located in downtown Lawrence along Massachusetts St. However, according to the leader of Downtown Lawrence Inc., the not-for-profit membership organization promoting the interests of the downtown business district, it may be too early to tell yet whether those fears are legitimate or unfounded.

DLI Executive Director Andrew Holt told the Journal-World Friday that he hasn’t had any specific business owners approach him to talk about the ordinance, and the organization itself has yet to take a position on it, either. Holt said the DLI board has the topic on the agenda for its next meeting.

“If and when the DLI board takes a position, we will provide a response,” Holt said.

Larger companies are a different story. The Journal-World has already reported that some grocery stores and chains with a presence in Lawrence have either already eliminated single-use plastics or announced plans to phase them out in the future. Kroger, the parent company of Dillons grocery stores, is one of them; it announced in 2018 it plans to transition to reusable bags across all its stores by 2025. ALDI already has eliminated single-use plastic bags at its Lawrence store, and the Merc Coop, one of Lawrence’s locally-owned grocery stores, hasn’t used plastic bags since 2013.

Another grocery chain with a local presence, Sprouts Farmers Market, announced plans just months ago to eliminate single-use plastic bags at checkout by the end of the year. According to a March news release from the company, that decision will lead to Sprouts removing more than 200 million single-use plastic bags from circulation each year. Instead of those bags, the company will offer customers reusable plastic bags made from 40% post-consumer recycled material that are “designed to be reused at least 125 times,” per the release.

Other large chain retailers with locations in Lawrence have been trending in the same direction. Target, for example, has transitioned its plastic bags such that all of them are made of a minimum of 40% recycled content. The company also encourages shoppers to use alternatives to plastic bags, company spokesperson Loni Monroe told the Journal-World, and will abide by local regulations when the time comes.

“Target complies with all local and state ordinances,” Monroe told the Journal-World. “Every store offers an alternative to plastic bags, including paper bags or reusable plastic bags, and we give guests a five-cent discount for each reusable bag used at all of our stores. As the local bag ban goes into effect, we will be transitioning to a bag-free experience at our Lawrence store.”

Target and fellow retail giant Walmart, of which Lawrence has two locations, both are founding members of the Beyond the Bag Initiative, a multi-year collaboration across retail sectors aiming to advance a more sustainable and waste-free future for the retail bag which launched in 2020. Other retailers with a Lawrence presence like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have joined the initiative more recently.

None of those companies seem to have announced plans for when or if they plan to phase out single-use plastic bags entirely at a company-wide level, though. The initiative they’re a part of has tested a couple pilot projects in select communities in 2023, such as one in Denver and Tuscon examining whether signage, marketing and prompts might help customers build a habit of bringing their own reusable bags.

Another pilot project in New Jersey, where statewide legislation last year banned single-use plastic bags in retail and grocery stores and food businesses, tested a “returnable bag” model which allowed customers to borrow a bag on-site, use it to bring their bags home and return it to a “bag drop” location to be sanitized and returned to participating retailers for recirculation.

In the meantime, city staff and leaders will still have some work to do for the ordinance to be functional. That’s because staff has asserted that a new full-time code compliance officer will be needed for the ordinance to be enforced property. That comes in at a cost of $94,000 for the position’s salary, benefits and a vehicle costs.

Previous information provided to city leaders has tabbed the position as a request via the 2024 budget process. Determining where that money comes from — and if the position should be funded at all — wasn’t resolved just by merit of passing the ordinance, though.

For the other city leader to vote against approving the ordinance, Commissioner Amber Sellers, that was a particular concern. Sellers in June said it was akin to imposing an “unfunded mandate,” which essentially is a statute or regulation requiring certain actions without the money provided for fulfilling them.


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