DULUTH – In a chamber packed with environmentalists, the City Council passed an ordinance that will require retailers to charge a nickel for plastic bags starting in April.
Council members voted 6-2 to approve the new charge Monday night, a week after Minneapolis passed a similar measure.
For weeks, residents have e-mailed their elected officials and made their case to the council at meetings. Supporters of the fee said it would help reduce pollution and encourage consumers to bring reusable shopping bags to stores.
"We need to do this for present and future generations, who deserve clean air, water and land," said Jane Hovland, a member of the Bag It Duluth campaign, which pushed for the city to take up the issue. Many fellow Bag It members evoked Duluth's location next Lake Superior as a reason the city should show environmental leadership.
"This is about how we're poisoning the lake with plastic," Council Member Joel Sipress said. "This is serious."
Some opponents argued the decision to give out plastic bags should be left up to stores, not dictated by local government. Others said the fee would put Duluth businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
"I think there's a general consensus in the community that we should do something about plastics and that we can do things locally," said Council Member Arik Forsman, who voted against the ordinance. "But it is clear to me that there is deep division within Duluth about whether this bag fee is the right something."
In 2017, Minneapolis and Duluth saw movements to curb the use of plastic bags fizzle at least in part because of resistance from grocers and other retailers. Duluth was the first to revive efforts to address the matter at the city level when Council Member Em Westerlund introduced the 5-cent-fee ordinance in September.
A vote on the Duluth ordinance was delayed until Monday while council members waited to make sure the fee, which will be kept by stores, is tax-exempt.
The city is following the lead of several others across the country that have imposed similar fees or banned plastic bags altogether. Minneapolis' fee, which takes effect Jan. 1, applies to paper and plastic bags.
The ordinance contains exceptions for plastic bags used to keep meat and produce separate, carry prescription drugs or takeout foods, or protect products like newspapers and dry-cleaning. It also waives the charge for low-income shoppers participating in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and Women, Infants & Children programs.
The policy takes effect April 1 so the city can educate businesses and give them time to adjust. Retailers who do not comply with the ordinance could be charged an initial fine of $100.
The crowd at City Hall whispered near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, when it was unclear how the council would vote. Once they heard six yeas, the chamber erupted into cheers and claps.