Sustainability board now supports plastic bag ban or fee; city to consider both options
photo by: Associated Press
City leaders will now also be considering an outright ban of plastic disposable bags in addition to a previously proposed disposable bag fee.
The Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board previously recommended that the city charge a 16-cent fee for disposable plastic and paper bags, but it has since updated that recommendation to indicate it would also support a ban. The board issued a statement of support for a ban should a ban be “deemed most feasible by city staff,” according to a city staff memo provided this week to the City Commission.
Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore, who is the staff liaison to the board, said it’s not that the board recommends a ban over a fee, but that the board would also support a ban if the city finds a fee is difficult to implement. Moore said the update was made because ongoing research by city staff indicated that the sustainability board’s initial recommendation, to charge a fee and have the proceeds remitted to the city, may not be a feasible option.
“Right now, the city doesn’t have the infrastructure to collect a fee from numerous businesses across the city; that’s just not something that we do,” Moore said. “And so one of the unintentional consequences of that model would mean that the city would have to create a large amount of infrastructure and staffing to even make that possible.”
Moore explained that because the city doesn’t currently charge any fees under such a structure, it would need to set up a mechanism that tracks how many bags are used, collects the fees charged to customers and then remits that money to the city. She said setting up and overseeing the billing accounts would take a significant amount of staff time. The city does have its own sales taxes, but Moore noted that the state of Kansas collects those and remits the money back to the city.
Moore said that using that mechanism to collect the fee could be an issue because the city cannot tax disposable bags. Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said in an email to the Journal-World that while the city is authorized to charge sales and use taxes, state law precludes it from exacting other forms of excise tax, such as a tax on plastic bags. He said the city can charge a fee, but charging a tax would be illegal.
The board voted last summer to make the issue of single-use plastics one of its priorities, and since then it has been studying potential policies. If charging a fee for bags is feasible, the board is recommending an ordinance that would have grocery stores and other retailers charge a 16-cent fee per bag upon checkout for both single-use plastic and paper bags. The proposal exempts some types of bags, such as those used to carry raw meat, seafood and bulk items such as fruits, vegetables and nuts.
It’s estimated that Lawrence residents use between 30 to 35 million plastic shopping bags annually, and 16 cents is the estimated “social cost” of a single plastic bag in terms of environmental harm, litter cleanup and the burden it places on recycling, sewer and waste processing systems, according to a policy research report by the board and a group of University of Kansas Master’s of Public Administration graduate students. The board proposed that proceeds from the fee be used to help offset implementation costs, provide reusable bags for low-income residents and support local environmental education and environmental initiatives.
The commission received the board’s original recommendation in August, and indicated general support for the concept of charging a fee, with some also expressing interest in an outright ban. Commissioners then sent the topic back to the board to address various questions, including which businesses and bags the charges would apply to and how the city would ensure the fee was charged.
Moore said that the board issued the new statement regarding its support for a ban after hearing some of the preliminary city staff research and legal findings regarding the fee proposal at its October meeting. She said that the city’s legal opinion on the issue was not yet finalized but would be provided to the City Commission at a later date. She said it was not yet determined if a ban would cover both disposable plastic and paper bags or just plastic bags.
The next steps in the process will include community meetings and surveys about the proposal to either charge a fee for disposable bags or ban them altogether. Moore said the city would be launching a Lawrence Listens survey this week on the city’s website.
The city is also in the process of scheduling stakeholder meetings about the proposal, which will occur sometime this month. Moore said those meetings would be open to the public and the city would be reaching out to grocers, restaurants and retailers that would be affected by the proposal.
Moore said she hoped that the disposable bag proposal would go back to the commission for discussion in the next couple of months.
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