A proposal headed to the Minneapolis City Council next week would ban businesses from packing customers’ purchases in plastic bags and require them to charge a 5-cent fee for paper, compostable or reusable bags.
The plan from Council Members Cam Gordon and Abdi Warsame was first introduced last summer and refined after council members met with business owners and community organizations. Its aim: get residents to cut back on their use of plastic bags, put less waste in landfills and help Minneapolis get closer to being a “zero waste” city where nearly everything tossed out is recycled.
The idea of banning or taxing bags — already a reality in several U.S. cities and some foreign countries, including Ireland and China — has picked up support from several local environmental groups and businesses that have made sustainability a key part of their operations. But it is also prompting concern from other business owners and has attracted the attention of out-of-state lobbyists, who have spent millions trying to defeat similar proposals in other states.
Gordon said he’s been approached by people wondering why Minneapolis hasn’t taken up the issue when more than 100 other cities have plastic bag restrictions. He’s preparing to take the issue to the council, starting with a public hearing Monday.
“We’re getting a lot of pressure from residents of Minneapolis to do something about plastic bags, too,” he said. “Plastic bags and paper bags have consequences.”
The council members’ plan would exempt a variety of plastic bags and wraps, including the thin bags used for produce in grocery stores and bags used to wrap flowers, bakery goods, prescription drugs, takeout foods, newspapers, dry cleaning, door hangings and “fine art paper.” Businesses could get around the 5-cent fee for paper bags if they offer customers a 10-cent rebate for using reusable bags. Money collected from the 5-cent fee would stay with businesses and is meant to help defray the higher cost of paper bags.
Still, the fee may be a subject of debate; Warsame said he’s not convinced it’s a good idea. While the proposal exempts recipients of public assistance from having to pay the paper-bag fee, Warsame said it may make more sense to just avoid the fee.
Allison Sharkey, executive director of the Lake Street Council, said some business owners are concerned about the headache of adding a new charge to every transaction.
“A lot of business owners already offer paper bags or reusable bags, and they’re not really thrilled about needing to charge their customers for that now,” she said.
Others are worried they haven’t had enough time to consider the issue because they’ve been busy calculating the likely impact of the city’s pending sick leave proposal. Matt Perry, president of the Southwest Business Association, said his group needs time to survey its members and hopes the council will delay a vote.
“Our request is that this not be the last public hearing,” he said.
Advocates, however, say many shoppers already regularly bring reusable bags on shopping trips and wouldn’t mind a fee for paper bags if they forgot to plan ahead.
Deanna White, state director for Clean Water Action, said her group has been knocking on doors around the city for the past few months and has collected more than 2,600 signatures in favor of the bag-ban ordinance.
“Folks like the idea,” she said. “They get it. They get that these bags are convenient, but they end up blowing around — everyone has seen them on the ground — and they end up in the water.”
Supporters point to successes elsewhere, including Washington, D.C., which implemented a bag fee in 2010 and said three years later that 80 percent of residents reported using fewer bags. In Seattle, which banned plastic bags in 2012, officials estimate that the amount of plastic bags in the garbage dropped by 418 tons — about 58 percent. In Ireland, which imposed a tax on plastic bags in 2002, the number of bags provided per person each year has dropped from 328 to 14, with a fee of about 22 cents per bag.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance — a group representing plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers — has been lobbying leaders to drop the idea. Jonathan Perman, one of two Chicago-area representatives for the group who has been spending time in Minneapolis, said estimates of the waste created by plastic bags are overblown. He said paper bags take considerably more energy to produce and ship, and many of the reusable bags handed out by stores are made of plastic that’s even harder to recycle than the type used in thinner, single-use bags.
Perman shared the same concerns with officials in St. Louis Park, who were considering a plastic bag regulation last year. The city later dropped the idea.
“Our sense is that if a community like St. Louis Park … reaches a conclusion that this isn’t valuable, it should make Minneapolis start to question it,” he said.
Perman also pointed to other communities that have rethought their proposals. That includes the entire state of California, which was the first to pass a statewide ban. It was delayed after Perman’s group mounted a major ballot campaign — spending more than $3 million — to put the issue to voters this November.
He acknowledged that his group had a hand in a bill being considered by Wisconsin lawmakers, which would prohibit cities from banning plastic bags. But Perman said his group doesn’t think that tactic would work here.
“That’s not a direction you’ll find us working on in Minnesota,” he said.