What to expect when Lawrence’s ban on single-use plastic bags takes effect in March

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on Jan. 31, 2023.

In just a couple of weeks, shoppers in Lawrence will be a little more limited in how they’re able to carry their purchases home from the store.

That’s because March 1 is the day that the city’s new ordinance banning single-use plastic bags takes effect. City leaders approved Ordinance No. 9996, which prohibits establishments in Lawrence from providing single-use disposable plastic bags to customers at the point of sale, in August 2023 after years of public debate.

A “single-use disposable plastic bag,” as defined by the ordinance, is any plastic bag less than 4.0 mils of thickness — about as thick as a piece of paper — used for the purpose of transporting food, beverages or other merchandise. That means that reusable bags made of nylon, cloth or other materials are permitted, as are reusable plastic bags that measure at or above the threshold for thickness. Those bags must also contain at least 40% post-consumer recycled content and be labeled with that percentage, the mil thickness and the word “reusable” on the bag.

Ahead of the change, the Journal-World spoke with Kathy Richardson, sustainability director for the City of Lawrence, about what local businesses and shoppers should expect as the ordinance takes effect, as well as how the city plans to encourage and educate the community about adopting reusable practices moving forward.

What the city’s hearing

As March 1 nears, some area businesses are still in the process of making the switch. Richardson said she’s heard from plenty of them in the past few weeks, generally either through phone calls or a question form included on a city website that also provides answers to frequently asked questions and other details about the ordinance.

“Overall, the sentiment is that the change to eliminate the single-use plastic bags is something that businesses are on board with,” Richardson told the Journal-World.

Rather than pushback, what Richardson described hearing was lots of questions. One of the most frequent ones is whether paper bags are compliant with the ordinance, she said. Like the types of plastic bags still allowed under the ordinance, Richardson said single-use disposable paper bags may be provided as long as they, too, contain at least 40% post-consumer recycled content and are labeled with the percentage somewhere on the bag.

Some of the questions Richardson is hearing are much more specific, such as a question from a local gift shop that was curious about whether the gift bags it uses for wrapping purchases must comply with the 40% post-consumer recycled content requirement. In this case, Richardson said they don’t have to, because there’s a distinction between gift wrap and the types of bags customers are carrying items in when leaving a store.

“A lot of it is just really detailed information of like ‘Hey, this is what our business is doing — is this OK?'” Richardson said. “… Everybody wants to confirm that they’ve got the right one.”

Some are even going “above and beyond,” Richardson said, and procuring paper bags made of 100% post-consumer recycled content instead.

Richardson added that the city has been making efforts to educate businesses since the end of last year, not just waiting for them to reach out with questions. The website dedicated to the ordinance, for example, includes a special FAQ section dedicated specifically to questions and concerns the city has heard most frequently from businesses, and there’s also a tab on the site where businesses can download signage resources to print out and display in stores.

On the consumer end of the spectrum, Richardson said she’s been observing many shoppers already bringing along their own reusable bags when going to the grocery store or other businesses. That’s a habit she said the city is hoping to emphasize that more people should pick up.

City staff will be aiming for that goal by hosting events like an upcoming “Bag Bash” set for March 2 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., where people can learn more about the ordinance, donate clean and gently used bags for other community members to use and decorate a new tote bag provided by the city. Richardson added that the city plans on hosting more “bag swap” events in the future where the city will help to redistribute donated reusable bags to people who may need them.

“If we re-use our own bags and the business provides some bags but doesn’t have to provide a whole lot because we all have the reusable bags, that’s the best scenario in reducing the amount of waste that’s being generated,” Richardson said. “Paper bags can be recycled, for sure, but if we can switch to our reusables, that would be our goal.”

Making the transition

Some local businesses might already have completed their transitions, or have at least previously announced how they planned to phase out single-use plastic bags in the future. As the Journal-World has reported, that includes larger companies with a local presence like Aldi, Target, Sprouts Farmers Market and Kroger, the parent company of Dillons.

But there are also a number of locally owned stores — like the Merc Co-op, which hasn’t used plastic bags since 2013 — that have been plastic-free for the past decade or longer. Richardson said there are many that have voluntarily made the switch, even well before the ordinance was passed.

One such business is Cottin’s Hardware, which phased out single-use plastic bags even earlier, around 2008. Owner Linda Cottin spoke with the Journal-World this past week about how the switch went at that time, and how her store’s experience might reflect what others can expect a couple of weeks from now.

Cottin said the store received “absolutely no blowback” from customers and described a “seamless” switch from plastic to paper bags that didn’t result in any increased costs for the business. She said it’s likely that a lot of Lawrence’s small businesses have gone in the same direction.

“It was amazing to us how easy it was, and honestly, it’s kind of saving us money,” Cottin said. “A lot of times, we’ll go to put (a purchase) in a paper bag and somebody will be like ‘Oh, no, never mind, we’ll carry it.’ So I’d even say it saved us money.”

Cottin’s has occasionally encountered customers who want a bag with handles instead, she said, usually pedestrians or cyclists who end up buying more than they thought they would. But in those cases, Cottin said the store keeps a stash of used bags procured from different vendors’ merchandise shipments that they’re able to provide.

Cottin said her business and at least one other she knows of are increasing their inventories of nicer reusable bags that customers can purchase if needed, providing another alternative to single-use plastics.

Downtown Lawrence Inc., the not-for-profit membership organization promoting the interests of the downtown business district, also doesn’t seem to have any immediate worries about the ordinance. DLI Executive Director Andrew Holt, in a statement provided to the Journal-World on Wednesday, said the organization “always supports efforts to create greater sustainability while still maintaining the viability of our local businesses,” and will be waiting to see the outcomes of the ordinance next month.

How enforcement will work

Fines for non-compliance apply not to individuals but to establishments, Richardson said, meaning that shoppers won’t be penalized for the types of bags they choose to use while shopping. Businesses simply won’t be able to provide the same single-use plastic bags they have in the past.

Nevertheless, Richardson said the city has heard some concerns from residents who are worried that they’ll be fined for actions like using pet waste bags.

“This is not about an individual getting fined, so no worry there,” Richardson said. “People will continue to be able to buy the pet waste bags from their favorite vendor. Enforcement is really on the establishments; that’s how it’s written in the ordinance, but there’s been some confusion.”

Failing to comply with the ordinance comes with a $100 fine after the first violation. Within the following calendar year, fines can rise to $200 for a second violation or up to $500 per violation upon the third or any subsequent violations.

When the ordinance was still working through the approval process, city leaders had questions about an accompanying request from staff to hire an additional code compliance officer as part of the city’s 2024 budget. Richardson said that position ultimately was not approved, leaving the city to rely on its current team of code enforcement officers.

Jeff Crick, the city’s Planning & Development Services director, told the Journal-World that for now, it’s “hard to say” how the ordinance taking effect might affect the existing code compliance workload.

“Our process is complaint-based, so it would depend on how many complaints we receive, and they would be in addition to the open inquiries we’re also working through,” Crick said.

The city handles code violation complaints through an online reporting form, which starts the process of getting a code enforcement officer out to investigate possible violations. Richardson said there won’t be any sort of scheduled audits for establishments.

There are a few types of establishments listed as exceptions to the ordinance, including farmers’ markets, schools, not-for-profit organizations and religious and charitable organizations. Sales of items including live animals, prescriptions, newspapers, garment bags and produce or product bags are also exempt.

At farmers’ markets, for example, Richardson said single-use plastic bags handed out by vendors can be thought of as similar to produce bags in that they keep products separate from other items.

Monitoring statewide legislation

There is one factor that casts some uncertainty on the ordinance moving forward — legislation at the state level.

A bill that would prohibit cities and counties from regulating plastic and other containers designed for the consumption, transportation or protection of merchandise, food or beverages has been working its way through the Legislature since the 2023 session, when the Kansas House of Representatives passed it by a 72-51 vote. Most recently, the Kansas Senate’s Committee on Federal and State Affairs recommended the bill be passed by the full Senate, where it’s awaiting a vote.

Another attempt at passing a state law like this one was vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly in 2022. Two years on, Lawrence is the first city in Kansas to have adopted an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags.

Richardson told the Journal-World that the city is monitoring that bill’s progress and submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill as part of the committee hearing earlier this month. But for now, it’s difficult to predict that bill’s fate.

“… We’re kind of seeing where that goes, if it’s going to be passed by the Senate and it goes to the governor next,” Richardson said. “In the past, the governor has vetoed it; we don’t know if the governor will veto it again.”

If that doesn’t happen this time around and the bill becomes law, Richardson said that means Lawrence’s ordinance would be voided and the city would be unable to continue enforcing it.

But that wouldn’t halt the city’s efforts on this front entirely, Richardson said. The city would continue its public education efforts, and she added that she’s heard from some businesses that have already made the switch that they don’t plan on going back to single-use plastic bags even if the legislation passes.

“We may not be able to (move forward) — we’ll see where that bill ends up,” Richardson said. “Either way, we’re going to continue our messaging on using reusable bags, reducing the amount of waste we generate as a community. Those are all really important points that we’ll continue to educate and communicate on.”


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