RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER After banning plastic foam containers, Minneapolis will consider banning plastic grocery bags to better protect the environment.
Council Member Cam Gordon said he intends to introduce the plan, which grew out of recommendations from a citizen environmental advisory group, at the council’s Aug. 7 meeting. It would prohibit stores from packing up purchases in plastic bags, require retailers to impose a 5-cent fee for paper bags and, according to Gordon, provide an important step in reaching the city’s zero-waste goals.
Gordon said he expects the move will have support from the council, which has already approved a ban on foam take-out containers, but now wants to open the conversation to the rest of the city.
“I think there’s going to be retailers that are worried about this and probably shoppers that are worried about this, so we’ll also see what kind of feedback we get, and there might be some room for tinkering,” he said.
Gordon’s plan would still allow stores to use plastic bags for wrapping meat and other food items that need to be separated, along with bags for dry cleaning, newspapers and bags sold in packages for picking up pet waste or other needs. Stores that did not comply with the rules would face warnings and fines.
So far, no Minnesota city has enacted a plastic bag restriction, although St. Louis Park is currently exploring the idea. Gordon said he’s interested in working with that city to gather input and research options for cutting back on plastic bag use and encouraging more people to opt for reusable bags.
In Dallas and Washington, D.C., shoppers pay 5 cents for both paper and plastic bags. In Chicago, big-box retailers and chain stores with at least three locations are prohibited from using plastic bags. In San Francisco, paper bags cost 10 cents and plastic bags must be compostable. Gordon’s plan is modeled after an ordinance that went into effect in Seattle in 2012.
Critics of Seattle’s ordinance have said it prompted an uptick in shoplifting, as more thieves tucked away items in reusable bags. There has also been criticism in California, which passed a statewide ban that was set to go into effect in July, but is now on hold. The plastic bag industry spent millions of dollars fighting the law and opponents gathered enough signatures to refer it to the ballot next year.
Meanwhile, China banned plastic bags at checkouts in 2008. A year later, a Chinese retail association reported that the move had saved 1.6 tons of oil and 40 billion plastic bags. In Ireland, which pioneered a plastic bag tax before American cities began jumping on the trend, there has been a measurable impact on shoppers’ behavior.
After that country put a 15-cent tax on plastic bags in March 2002, shoppers changed their habits immediately. The Irish government estimates that the number of bags provided per person each year dropped from 328 before the tax to 21 by the end of the first year the tax was imposed. After a decade — which included an increase in the tax to 22 cents per bag — the number had dropped to 14 bags per person.
Irish environmental officials also reported a significant drop in the number of plastic bags that ended up in the trash. When the tax was introduced, plastic bags made up about 5 percent of the country’s litter. A decade later, bags amounted to less than half a percent of all litter. In the first 11 years after the bag tax was implemented, the country — which has a population of about 4.6 million — raised more than €203 million, or about $223 million.
In Minneapolis, retailers say they’ve seen increasing use of reusable bags, in part because of incentive programs that offer a few cents back to customers as a refund or as a donation to a charitable organization. Several grocers said more of their customers currently use paper bags than plastic, though many customers like to use a combination of the two.
Lunds & Byerlys spokesman Aaron Sorenson said his company encourages the use of renewable bags and recycles plastic bags that customers bring in. But he said discussions about bag bans or requirements should happen at the state level, to prevent stores from losing customers to other communities that still provide plastic bags.
“It’s very easy to go to another retailer a mile or two away that’s in a different city,” he said.
At Kowalski’s Markets, Mike Oase, vice president of operations, said he expects more customers would shift to paper bags, rather than reusable bags, if plastic was banned. But he said people need to be aware of the good and bad of all types of grocery totes.
“There’s downsides of the paper bags, too: they take so much more energy to produce,” he said. “Even with reusable bags, they’re great, but the downside is people don’t properly clean them, so you can get bacteria in reusable bags.”
Others, including manager Terry Mahowald at Minneapolis’ Longfellow Market, worry about rising prices. He said the city’s recent Styrofoam ban already caused prices of some deli takeout containers to quadruple, and paper bags are more expensive than plastic.
Mahowald said he can buy plastic bags for less than 3 cents, but paper bags are 12 cents. If the store’s costs go up, he said it’s likely some of the burden would be shared by customers, even if the retailers are getting back money on paper bags.
“The main thing is the costs go up,” he said. “It’s got to be passed on, that’s the bottom line.”
But some aren’t so concerned. At Oxendale’s Market, which operates a store in south Minneapolis and another in West St. Paul, store manager Tom McDonough said his company has made a point of getting involved in recycling programs and encouraging customers to bring their own bags. The store provides a 4-cent credit for every reusable bag customers use.
“If we didn’t have the plastic option I don’t think there would be much grumbling at all because we’d offer them paper and be fine with that,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing, myself.”