In just over a year, Minneapolis businesses will no longer be allowed to pack customers' purchases in plastic bags.
The Minneapolis City Council voted 10-3 on Friday to ban plastic bags at store checkouts and impose a 5-cent fee on each paper bag. To get around the paper-bag fee, businesses can opt to donate 5 cents to litter-cleanup groups for every paper, compostable or reusable bag they hand out. The bag ban will go into effect on June 1, 2017.
Supporters of the ordinance, including its council sponsors Cam Gordon and Abdi Warsame, said it will help change behavior, cut down on litter and get the city closer to its zero-waste goals. Gordon said the plan was modeled after ordinances in other cities, including Seattle and Cambridge, Mass., and drafted to avoid loopholes that made other cities' bans less effective.
"I am excited that we've landed on something," he said. "I know that the city isn't united on it, but I also know that by and large, people are enthusiastic and ready to make this move."
The Minneapolis ordinance applies specifically to bags provided at cash registers. It exempts bags without handles that are used to pack produce, bulk goods, frozen foods, flowers, baked goods, newspapers, prescription drugs and dry cleaning, among others. It also does not apply to compostable bags that meet specific environmental standards.
Officials are still sorting out the specifics of enforcement and how much that work will cost the city. Council members on Friday directed city staff members to come back with a report on those issues by late January. The council also voted to start developing a city program for recycling plastic bags and the plastic film commonly used to wrap items in stores.
The paper bag fees paid by customers would be kept by businesses as a way to offset the higher cost of those bags.
Several council members said they support efforts to reduce waste and get more people making environmentally friendly decisions. Some, however, worried that the bag ban would have little impact on bigger problems, including litter. Council Member Andrew Johnson showed several bags filled with 498 pieces of litter he said he'd collected in about an hour. He said just seven of them were plastic bags.
Johnson offered an amendment to the initial proposal, which did not give businesses a way to avoid a 5-cent fee for paper bags. He suggested that the city should use the plastic bag ban to tackle the rest of the litter that ends up on streets and sidewalks and in rivers and lakes by allowing businesses to contribute to litter cleanup rather than charging the fee.
"[Litter] is everywhere. It's so ubiquitous," he said. "That stuff is ending up in our rivers, ending up in our streams, and I want to do something about it."
While Gordon and Warsame objected that the move would "water down" the impact of the original plan, the council approved it, 7-6.
Others, however, were not convinced that a bag ban would help.
Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Blong Yang, who represent city's North Side, said their constituents are worried about increased costs for businesses and customers. The ordinance does exempt people receiving government food benefits from the 5-cent fee on paper bags.
Yang cited statistics about increased costs for businesses in cities that have banned plastic bags and said it remains unclear which city departments would enforce the ban.
"We have lots of challenges in the city of Minneapolis, some of which have been laid bare this week," he said, after days of unrest sparked by the decision not to charge the police officers who killed Jamar Clark. "I cannot rationalize the time and effort needed to enforce this ordinance, let alone the need for it."
Johnson and Yang voted against the ban, along with Council Member John Quincy, who said he had initially supported the idea. Quincy said he's worried that stores will end their plastic-bag recycling programs, and he said the ordinance might look good but accomplish little.
"The more I learned about it, I said: 'We're not going to make any impact,' " he said. "It is greenwashing, and it's not going to be effective."
The majority of council members, however, sided with Gordon and Warsame. Council Member Alondra Cano said people elsewhere in the world — and many who have come to Minneapolis from other countries — regularly use reusable bags.
"Many countries that struggle with environmental issues have been leading on this front for many years, so I don't think we should be afraid to take this step," she said. "I think it's very simple: We as a human race have survived many generations and decades without plastic bags, and we can do it again."