A proposal to ban Minneapolis stores from handing out plastic bags — and require them to charge customers for paper bags — has cleared an important hurdle at City Hall.

Monday, following a lengthy public hearing, the City Council’s Health, Environment and Community Engagement committee voted 4-0 to forward the plan to the full council. It appears the plan may have enough support to pass the 13-member council; in addition to the four committee members who voted in favor of the plan, two other council members attended the meeting to voice their support. A fifth committee member, Council Member Andrew Johnson, expressed support for the plan but abstained from voting because he intends to work on an amendment that would make the policy more “consumer and business friendly.”

If approved, the ban would take effect in April 2017 and cover all types of businesses, with a few exceptions. It would exempt several types of plastic bags, including those used to wrap produce, flowers, baked goods, takeout foods, newspapers and dry-cleaning or laundry. It would require businesses to charge customers a 5-cent fee for paper bags, though customers receiving public assistance to buy food would not be required to pay the fee.

The proposal was drafted by Council Members Cam Gordon and Abdi Warsame, who said they’re looking to change consumers’ habits in order to get the city closer to its zero-waste goals. Gordon has said he offered the idea in response to growing concerns from residents about the amount of plastic bags thrown away or blowing around the city’s streets, parks, lakes and rivers. He hopes more people will bring their own reusable bags if faced with fewer, or costlier, alternatives.

A majority of the people who turned out for Monday’s public hearing agreed. Of the 25 people who spoke, 20 were supportive of the ban.

They included residents, representatives of neighborhood groups, students, and one man who came to the hearing dressed in a bulky suit made of plastic bags.

Steve Eberly, a board member of the environmental nonprofit group Linden Hills Power & Light, said his “Bag Monster” costume was meant to underscore the volume of bags used in the city. He told the council he was wearing the average number of plastic bags a typical shopper uses in a year: about 500. Another man said he biked to the meeting from Lake Street, about three miles away, and saw 52 plastic bags littered along the way.

High school student Sarah Silver brought along four reusable bags stuffed full with plastic bags — a haul from a few hours of picking up trash along the Mississippi River. She and other students who spoke at the hearing said many young people are concerned about the long-term impact on the health of the environment and on the community.

“Every morning when I go to school, I drive along Hiawatha and I see trash bags everywhere,” she said. “And it’s really a bummer, because when you think of a beautiful city, you don’t want it to be littered with trash.”

Business resistance

Four people spoke in opposition to the ban, from groups representing the plastic bag manufacturing industry, the paper products industry and the grocery industry. Each urged council members to give consumers more options, rather than fewer, for transporting their purchases. Some disputed claims from environmental groups and other ban supporters about the number of plastic bags that end up in the trash and pointed out that paper and reusable bags require more energy to produce and distribute.

They also touted the impact of in-store recycling programs for plastic bags and businesses’ voluntary decisions to offer incentives for the use of reusable bags.

“We believe that consumers have a choice,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “We would like to see the opportunity to educate customers and work in partnership with the city of Minneapolis to make sure they have the best choices for their households.”

A representative of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said her group is not taking a formal position on the proposal, but urged council members to consider putting a fee on both plastic and paper bags.

Council Member Jacob Frey, along with Johnson, questioned the impact of a policy that could prompt more people to use paper bags.

Johnson, who previously led a successful charge to ban foam takeout food containers in the city, said he’s working on an amendment to the ban that could help it have a broader impact. He said he’s mulling the idea of directing the paper-bag fees to help with litter cleanup, or trying to tackle the broader stream of litter that ends up in the city.

“We have a huge opportunity here, so I think we need to do this right,” he said.