Minneapolis is taking big steps in waste reduction, including signing the excellent contract with local nonprofit Eureka Recycling and banning Styrofoam containers in restaurants. Now Minneapolis should go one step further to help eliminate what a Star Tribune article called “enemy No. 1” for recycling facilities: plastic bags.
Plastic bags are not accepted at single-sort recycling facilities, but they wind up in the recycling stream anyway, where they clog and wrap around the sorting equipment. According to Kate Davenport with Eureka: “Sometimes two hours a day can be spent cleaning them out.” This interferes with legitimate recycling, adding time and expense.
Only about 5 percent of plastic bags are ever recycled. The rest of the bags are either burned or put in landfills, or they end up as litter in our trees, parks, lakes and rivers. Once plastic bags are in the environment, they break into smaller pieces that hurt wildlife.
How much waste are we talking about? The average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. Each year, Minnesotans throw away 87,000 tons of plastic bags — weighing more than 14,000 elephants.
Plastic is made from oil, natural gas and other petrochemicals. In fact, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture the 100 billion plastic bags Americans use annually. This production exacerbates climate change as well as air and water pollution, harming human health and wildlife.
There are easy alternatives to single-use plastic bags, such as bringing your own cloth or sturdy reusable plastic bag with you to the store.
Last week, Minneapolis held a hearing on a balanced proposal from Council Members Cam Gordon and Abdi Warsame to discourage the use of plastic bags. We support their plan to prohibit single-use plastic bags for customer carryout and to add a 5-cent charge to paper bags (with an exception for low-income customers who qualify for food assistance). We also support the proposed reasonable exceptions to allow in-store bags to hold meat, flowers or produce; dry cleaning bags; or takeout food where it would otherwise be a health risk.
Minneapolis has the benefit of experience from many cities across the country that have taken similar steps — from Dallas to Los Angeles to Chicago. In Washington, D.C., plastic bags were clogging the Anacostia River. In 2010, the city imposed a small fee on bags. Within the first month, plastic bag use plummeted to 3.3 million per month from an earlier average of 22.5 million a month. The initiative worked to clean up the river, too. A local nonprofit reported a 72 percent decrease in plastic bags collected from river cleanups in the years after the fee took effect.
It’s not just cities that see the benefits of reducing plastic bag use. Companies from Ikea to Whole Foods to Wal-Mart have policies discouraging disposable bag use. Many local Minneapolis grocery stores, such as Oxendale’s Market and the Seward Co-op, already provide a discount for bringing reusable bags.
We know Minneapolis is ready to join the 160 U.S. cities and many businesses that have already acted on plastic bags. In just the past few months, Clean Water Action has collected more than 2,600 signatures in favor of the bag-ban ordinance. The groups we speak for also have tens of thousands of Minneapolis members and supporters.
We urge the City Council to keep plastic bags from jamming our recycling centers, littering our parks and rivers, and harming our environment.
Deanna White is state director of Clean Water Action. Keiko Veasey is board chair of Linden Hills Power and Light. Ryan Kennedy is executive director of MPIRG. Mathews Hollinshead is conservation chair of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.