Sustainability Advisory Board to consider recommendation to charge for disposable plastic and paper bags in Lawrence

photo by: Associated Press

This file photo from Aug. 3, 2009 shows a clerk bagging groceries in plastic sacks at the M Street Grocery in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

City of Lawrence leaders will soon consider whether to start charging people for disposable grocery and shopping bags in an effort to reduce plastic waste.

The city’s Sustainability Advisory Board voted last summer to make the issue of single-use plastics one of its priorities, and since then a committee has been studying a potential plastic bag ban. The committee has completed its review and is recommending that a fee for plastic and paper bags be imposed instead of an outright ban, according to the committee report.

Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore, who is the staff liaison to the board, said the main consideration in the recommendation was how effective a ban or a fee would be at reducing plastic waste. Moore said that research has shown that in some communities retailers and grocers just shifted to thicker plastic bags that didn’t qualify as disposable but that some customers still threw away.

“There’s been some research that has shown that in order to reduce the amount of bags in general that a fee is more effective than a ban,” Moore said.

Additionally, bans and fees have been found to have similar effects on encouraging customers to take reusable bags to stores and on reducing the overall consumption of single-use bags, according to research cited in the committee’s report. Part of the consideration is that without a fee per bag, customers perceive the bags as being free, even though retailers incorporate the price of a plastic or paper bag into the price of their products.

Specifically, the committee recommends a city ordinance that would impose a 16 cent fee per bag upon checkout for both single-use plastic and paper bags, but would exempt some types of bags. Exempted bags would include those used to carry raw meat, seafood and bulk items, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. As currently proposed, the fee would apply to grocers and retailers, but Moore said further discussion would occur regarding what businesses would be included.

Moore said the subcommittee’s report was based in part on data and research collected by a class of graduate students at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs & Administration. Sixteen cents is the estimated “social cost” of a single plastic bag, in terms of environmental harms, litter cleanup and the burden it places on recycling, sewer and waste processing systems, according to the students’ report.

Based on national estimates of per-capita plastic bag use, it’s estimated that Lawrence residents use between about 30 to 35 million plastic shopping bags annually, according to the students’ report. In addition to the waste associated with the bags themselves, bags that end up in streams, rivers and oceans cause pollution and threaten wildlife.

The city’s recycling service does not accept plastic bags because they clog machinery, though some local grocery stores do have collection bins for the bags. Concerns about plastic bag pollution and the idea for a plastic bag ban was initially brought up by a group of local elementary students. Last May, after learning about the effect of plastic bags on the environment and animals, students from Lauren Mitchell’s fourth-grade class at Kennedy Elementary School called up local leaders about their idea for a local ban and ultimately gave a presentation to the City Commission, the Journal-World previously reported.

The recommendation proposes that retailers that offer single-use bags less than 4 mils thick — a mil is a measurement that equals one-thousandth of an inch — would have the bag purchase fee clearly displayed along with a city-provided flyer explaining the fee. Fee revenue would be allocated to address the business costs associated with the policy; to support local environmental education and initiatives; and to support programming for low-income Lawrence residents. The committee recommends an educational campaign and reusable bag giveaway ahead of the launch of the policy and annually thereafter.

The board was scheduled to consider the committee’s recommendation at its meeting earlier this month, but there were not enough board members present to vote on the issue. Moore said that about 40 members of the public attended the meeting, and comments regarding the recommendation, mostly positive, were heard, but the vote was deferred until a later date.

In addition to the plastic and paper bag fee, the subcommittee also recommends additional research regarding plastics and policies to reduce their use, including biodegradable and nontoxic packaging, according to the committee report.

Moore said that the Sustainability Advisory Board would consider the recommendation, including potential changes, at a special meeting July 2. She said the board would then vote on the recommendation, which would be forwarded to the City Commission for potential action. The commission will receive the board’s recommendation at an upcoming meeting, and at that point could take no action or direct city staff to begin drafting an ordinance for future consideration.

The board will meet to discuss the recommendation at 5 p.m. July 2 in the Flory Building at Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St.

Related stories

Oct. 12, 2018 — Research, focus groups underway regarding potential ban for plastic bags, straws, other plastic products

Aug. 24, 2018 — Dillons’ parent company begins phasing out plastic bags at stores

July 27, 2018 — City board to look at ban for plastic bags, straws, other plastic products

May 21, 2018 — Lawrence fourth-graders start discussion at City Hall about plastic bag ban

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