As Lawrence considers banning disposable bags, state bill would prevent such regulation

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)

If a recently proposed bill makes it into law, it would stop a long-running effort by the City of Lawrence to develop an ordinance to ban or limit the use of disposable plastic bags.

On Tuesday, a new bill was introduced in the Kansas House Commerce Committee that prohibits municipalities from regulating plastic or paper shopping or carryout bags and other single-use plastic items, such as straws and stirrers. Specifically, the bill prohibits local governments from banning those products or assessing fees or taxes on those products. Proponents say the bill would protect businesses from burdensome and costly regulations, but city leaders say the bill ignores the environmental damage of such products and would usurp Lawrence’s home rule authority.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen, who is a retired environmental geologist, has expressed support for developing local regulations on disposable bags. Larsen said the introduction of the bill was unfortunate, and that if it became law, it would stop city leaders from exercising home rule.

“We’re trying to pass measures that we believe are in the best interest of our local community,” Larsen said. “That’s our job, and (state lawmakers) should allow us the opportunity to do that and to let us take care of our own here in the community.”

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Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, who chairs the Kansas House Commerce Committee, did not respond to phone and email messages from the Journal-World requesting an interview. The Kansas chamber of commerce, whose 2020 legislative agenda opposes bans on plastics, straws, chemicals and other items, requested that the bill be introduced. In response to requests for comment from the Journal-World, the chamber sent a statement via email regarding the bill.

Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the chamber’s vice president of communications, said in the statement that the patchwork of differing regulations surrounding disposable products in other states and municipalities creates a burden on businesses and ultimately affects consumers.

“Anytime there is an additional rule, regulation or tax placed on a business, a business’ operation costs increase,” Jones-Sontag said. “Those increased costs get passed along to the consumer.”

Jones-Sontag also noted that even without additional regulations and taxes, many Kansas retailers already are moving away from offering single-use bags to their customers. For example, Dillons announced in 2018 that it would phase out plastic bags at all of its nearly 2,800 stores by 2025, according to national media reports. Dillons operates four grocery stores in Lawrence.

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The city’s Sustainability Advisory Board voted in summer 2018 to make the issue of single-use plastics one of its priorities, and since then it has been studying potential policies. Last year, the board indicated its support for either banning or charging a fee for disposable plastic and paper bags. The board has recommended exempting some types of bags, such as those used to carry raw meat, seafood and bulk items such as fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Board Chair Jackie Carroll told the City Commission in August that discouraging the use of disposable bags is meant to change consumer habits, and thereby reduce plastic creation, consumption and waste. Initially the board was considering regulations only for plastic bags, but it later incorporated disposable paper bags, as well. Board member Michael Steinle told the Journal-World in July 2019 that there were limits to paper bags’ recyclability and that they were a poor use of resources.

It’s estimated that Lawrence residents use 30 million to 35 million plastic shopping bags annually, according to a policy research report by the board and a group of University of Kansas Master’s of Public Administration graduate students. Only a small percentage of plastic bags are recycled, and 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 — is estimated to be 16 cents, according to the report. Therefore, if a fee were to be placed on disposable bags, the board has recommended it be 16 cents.

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The cities of Wichita and Prairie Village are also considering potential ordinances to discourage the use of disposable bags, and dozens of cities in the United States have banned or otherwise restricted the use of disposable bags. Cities with plastic bag bans or fees include Chicago, Boston, Seattle, New York and Boulder, Colo., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states have banned plastic bags, and 15 states have passed laws that prohibit municipalities from adopting their own regulations regarding plastic bags.

Regarding the chamber’s statement about a patchwork of regulation, Larsen said that making incremental progress on a systemic issue is how movements work. She said if climate change is to be addressed, some long-accepted practices must change.

“We’ve got to step back and start changing some of the accepted policies and measures that have caused the damage to our planet,” Larsen said. “And we need to continue to make changes.”

Jones-Sontag did not immediately respond to follow-up questions pertaining to Larsen’s concerns regarding the environment and local control.

The previous City Commission has said it was interested in considering both banning and charging a fee for disposable bags. In August the commission directed city staff and the board to do more research about how an ordinance would be carried out and enforced.

Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore said in an email to the Journal-World that city staff is in the process of drafting an ordinance based on the board’s recommendations, research, other ordinances in the region, and feedback from the commission and the public. Moore said she anticipates the ordinance to go before the commission in early spring.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Kansas House on Feb. 20 at 1:30 p.m.

Related stories

Dec. 11 — In city survey, about half of respondents support a ban on disposable plastic bags in Lawrence

Nov. 22 — Lawrence residents share opinions on proposals to ban or charge for plastic and paper bags

Nov. 7 — Sustainability board now supports plastic bag ban or fee; city to consider both options

Aug. 13 — Lawrence City Commission expresses support for plastic and paper bag fee or ban; more research will be done

July 2 — Sustainability Advisory Board advances proposal to charge 16-cent fee for single-use bags

June 28 — Lawrence shoppers have mixed emotions on proposed 16-cent fee for single-use bags

June 25 — Sustainability Advisory Board to consider recommendation to charge for disposable plastic and paper bags in Lawrence

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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