Editorial: City still needs to think more on plastic and paper bag ban

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The city’s discussion on dealing with messy plastic bags is moving in the right direction, but it still has a gaping hole.

The Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board recently said it was open to abandoning the idea of a 16 cent per bag fee on most plastic bags used at stores in the city. Instead, the board would be open to an outright ban on plastic bags. City commissioners must still decide the issue.

A ban is probably preferable to a fee program. After city officials began looking at collecting a fee on plastic bag use, it became clear that it would take a significant bureaucratic effort at City Hall to collect the money. Plastic bags can be messy and unsightly, but the same can be said of new bureaucracy. That alone is reason enough to move the fee idea to the back burner.

The fee idea, however, has another problem. It easily could end up being perceived as a money grab by local government. A significant number of people would still be using plastic bags. We still would see the bags blowing through our neighborhoods and playgrounds. Yet, the city would be collecting potentially millions of dollars a year — the city would collect about $2 million a year if plastic bag use were cut in half — and there still would be millions of plastic bags in use. At that point, it would be fair to ask whether the city’s coffers or the city’s environment is the bigger winner.

It is too early to say whether a ban on plastic bags would be reasonable. The city should hear more from merchants on the issue. Merchants shouldn’t have the final say on the matter, but they are in the best position to tell the city what the likely consequences would be to consumers.

But the gaping hole in the sustainability board’s current proposal is that the group is still talking about extending a ban to paper bags as well. On its face, it seems infeasible to ban both plastic and paper bags. Try as you might, consumers are not going to remember to bring a reusable canvas bag every time they go to a store. It seems unfair to force people to buy a reusable bag simply because they forgot to bring one.

Of course, there are some purchases where you don’t need a bag at all, and that is a good environmental choice to make. But depending on the quantity of items purchased, there are times there are no good alternatives to a bag. It would be quite irksome to anyone, but particularly low-income residents, to spend a few dollars for canvas bags simply to bring home that week’s worth of groceries.

Beyond practicality, there is a strong philosophical argument against banning paper bags. The sustainability board has not made a convincing case on why they should be banned. As this page has previously noted, there are common sense reasons to consider a plastic bag ban. They aren’t compatible with the city’s single stream recycling program. They are tough to contain at the landfill, and they are particularly harmful to marine life when they get into water.

A convincing case hasn’t been made that paper bags are causing such problems. Some people think they are not a good use of resources, but the city shouldn’t ban a legal product simply based on the opinion of some well-intentioned residents. Let them build a strong case before considering paper bags.

Instead, the city should recognize the value of incremental steps. A ban on plastic bags — if further studied — could be a good incremental step in making Lawrence a more environmentally friendly place.

An overarching bag ban, however, could make Lawrence the type of place that angers so many — one that puts ideology above practicality and makes anyone who disagrees feel insufficiently woke.

City leaders should work to avoid that outcome.

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