The global effort to stop plastic shopping bags from lining roadside ditches, choking waterways and filling landfills will blow into Duluth soon if a new group gets its way.
Bag it Duluth on Thursday announced a campaign for a city ordinance that would ban thin plastic shopping bags and impose a minimum 5-cent fee on all paper bags distributed within the city.
The ban would be phased in over a year to allow retailers and consumers time to adjust.
The proposal, if adopted by the Duluth City Council, also would ban the use of carry-out or take-home polystyrene containers, the foam boxes some restaurants give out. Only reusable or compostable containers would be allowed.
The effort is aimed at encouraging reusable bags for shopping and to help stem the tide of plastic and foam waste — most of which ends up in landfills at best or, at worst, fouling Lake Superior and other ecosystems.
"This is all aimed at reducing our footprint and encouraging re-use. We've come to the realization that we have to get away from this disposable, throw-away society we have become but that, I think, no one really wants. What we need are alternatives," said Jamie Harvie, Bag it Duluth campaign coordinator.
The minimum fee provision for bags has gained popularity in other cities, Harvie noted, with all the money collected kept by the retailer, not collected as a tax.
"It's more of a way to (quantify) how having bags out there has a cost," he said. "It's important retailers know this isn't going to cost them any money or require any more work for them."
Harvie said Bag it Duluth is waiting to draft a formal ordinance until after receiving input from local businesses and citizens. The group is looking at dozens of different ordinances in hundreds of cities that already ban plastic shopping bags.
"We want to leave room to have a community conversation before and then pick the best pieces of other ordinances to find something that works here, in a city this size," Harvie said.
But the group said it's clear recycling efforts haven't worked to stem the tide of plastic entering the environment, and that efforts to promote reusable bags and containers simply haven't caught on with plastic bags so easy to access.
1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson noted that he had recently read an article about plastic waste, including shopping bags, accumulating in the Great Lakes.
"It's a real issue, and I look forward to having a discussion about this. Clearly clean water is always on my radar, and this is definitely something we should be looking at, and there are examples for how we might take action, going forward," he said Thursday.
"One concern that I have, and I don't know how this would be addressed in a resolution or ordinance, is: How do we look at this from an equity standpoint? So how would this ban of plastic bags affect the most vulnerable populations that we have in Duluth — poor people, because we have a lot of people living in poverty? We need to think about how we address this issue so that it is fair to everybody, everyone's needs are met and no one is punished unnecessarily."
Under the proposed ordinance, retailers would not collect the paper bag fee from people using the federal food assistance program.
Billions of bags
The number of plastic shopping bags is staggering.
Widely introduced in the 1970s as a cheaper alternative to paper bags, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 1 trillion thin plastic bags are now used globally each year. Some counts put the number at nearly 5 trillion. Americans alone use 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year, according to Worldwatch Institute.
National studies show somewhere between 3 and 13 percent of plastic shopping bags are recycled.
In the Duluth area, exhaustive waste surveys found that 3,172 tons of thin plastic material (shopping bags, package wrapping, etc.) ends up in the trash each year, more than 6 percent of all garbage by weight, according to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Considering how little the stuff weighs — 1,000 bags weigh just 15 pounds — that amounts to a lot of plastic.
And that doesn't include the millions of bags that never make it into a garbage can or recycling bin. Plastic garbage masses in the ocean are now hundreds of square miles in size. And a new study by Rochester Institute of Technology, first reported by the News Tribune last month, estimates that nearly 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes every year, much of it thin plastic film and bags.
More bag bans
The Duluth proposal is part of a global wave of plastic bag bans and bag fee laws enacted in recent years, including in the state of Hawaii, Los Angeles County and 130 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.
The Minneapolis City Council enacted a plastic bag ban in March on a 10-3 vote that will take effect June 1, 2017 and which would be very similar to the one proposed for Duluth. (Minneapolis appears to be the only city in Minnesota with a bag ban on the books.) Another 75 U.S. cities have phased out polystyrene food containers.
Voters in California in November upheld a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. And the entire country of France in September banned plastic shopping bags along with non-biodegradable plastic plates, cups and cutlery — all to start in 2020. China instituted an all-out ban on plastic bags in 2008.
Some local bag bans have been heralded as success stories, others not so much. In Los Angeles, a 10-cent bag tax imposed since 2011 has cut bag use dramatically. In Washington D.C., a 2009 bag ban has led to a 50 percent reduction in single-use bags. But researchers in Austin, Texas, found that a 2013 bag ban led consumers to use thicker plastic garbage bags, which are just as polluting but not included in bans. Dallas rescinded its five-cent bag fee after being sued by bag manufacturers.
Plastic bags have their supporters, of course — namely the plastics industry. They say most plastic bags are not really single use — that many Americans reuse their plastic shopping bags for picking up dog poop, sending lunches to school or lining bathroom garbage bins. The companies have battled back with a marketing campaign of their own, called Bag the Ban, and often push back against local or statewide bag bans citing the convenience of plastic and its economic advantages.
The plastic bag industry group American Progressive Bag Alliance battled hard in 2016 trying to defeat California's statewide plastic bag ban referendum, but failed. They succeeded in Michigan, however, where state lawmakers recently passed a law banning all local plastic bag bans, usurping control from city or county governments.
The group did not immediately respond to a News Tribune request to comment on the Duluth proposal.
Plastic bag supporters note that the process of making paper bags actually produces more carbon dioxide emissions, the gas that climate experts say is causing global warming. And paper bags also take more energy to make.
Even reusable cotton bags have detractors who say the pesticides used to grow cotton, coupled with the water and energy used to make the bags, is worse than plastic production.
But in the long run — it may take hundreds or even thousands of years before plastic bags entirely break down — plastic bag opponents note that the bag's overwhelming, nearly permanent presence in the environment is reason enough to stem the flow. They say the totes are now ubiquitous in the environment, on land and in the water. The bags, as they slowly disintegrate into tiny bits, can carry toxins into ecosystems, contaminating fish and whatever eats fish.
Reusable bags, depending on what they are made of — recycled plastic, cotton, etc — must be reused several times, as many as a dozen by some studies, before their environmental benefit kicks in, Harvie noted. But he said it's still well worth the effort.
Scientists "are finding plastic in our fish in Lake Superior. This stuff never goes away. It's toxic. We have alternatives. We need to stop using this stuff... and we're hoping this helps push our community to get there," Harvie said. "We take plastic (bags) at the checkout because it's a habit. We're creatures of habit. We need to break this habit."
Several Duluth restaurants already have moved away from foam for their take-away boxes. And several stores are moving away from plastic bags. Ann Pellant, supervisor of the UMD Stores retail operation at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said a six-year effort on campus has helped break the plastic bag habit among many student shoppers.
Instead of asking "paper or plastic?" UMD Stores clerks ask "do you need a bag?" — "and that changes the mindset,'' Pellant said.
"Now, we have a lot of people respond no, they don't need any bag," she said. "Granted, our audience is generally carrying a backpack. But we've been able to substantially reduce the number of bags we give out."
UMD Stores also has a bag-free week each fall and goes bag-free after spring break, Pellant said, pushing reusable bags if people shop unprepared. The store also offers to donate a nickel to charity if customers don't take a bag.
Has it all helped?
"We order 50,000 plastic bags at a time. We used to place more than one order per year,'' Pellant said. "The current order should last us around 18 months, maybe longer."
Across the state, Minnesotans dispose of 77,000 tons of thin plastic bags annually and only recycle about 10 percent of those, said Wayne Gjerde of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That leaves 67,300 tons going to landfills, more than 1 billion bags annually — again not counting the bags that blow into the environment without going into the formal waste stream.
Officially the MPCA doesn't support or oppose local bag bans. But the agency does promote "reduce, reuse and recycling" as the core of its mission dealing with waste, Gjerde said.
Gjerde was the inventor of the infamous "Bagnado," the 25-foot tall swirling cyclone of thousands of plastic bags at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair that represented how many plastic bags Minnesotans throw away every five seconds. That's a waste, he said, because some Minnesota companies turn recycled plastic bags into construction materials such as composite decking (Armadillo Deck and Rhino Deck are made in Minnesota from recycled bags.)
But consumers first have to get the bag into the right recycling stream, and 90 percent of us don't.
"If your goal is to reduce the amount of plastic out there, you might do that with a ban. But you aren't going to eliminate it, especially if you have a lot of exemptions," Gjerde said. "What we try to encourage is recycling (bags) back to the retailer. Don't put bags in your recycling bin because it won't get recycled. But that material is reused, it has value, if you get it back to the retailer. It can add to our economy rather than end up sitting in a landfill."
Peter Passi of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.
Proposed Duluth city ordinance banning plastic shopping bags
Who's proposing it
Bag It Duluth, For the Love of Place, "a group of citizens, community leaders, businesses, and organizations who seek to address the impacts of single use carryout bags and styrofoam" including MiNNBOX, Loll Designs, League of Women Voters, Duluth Folk School, Kenspeckle Letterpress, Duluth Grill, Institute for a Sustainable Future, Whitehill Construction LLC, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light — Arrowhead, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth Board of Trustees, UMD Office of Sustainability and Duluth Coffee Company.
What would be phased out and eventually banned
Thin, plastic, single-use shopping bags — 4 millimeters or thinner.
Plastic bags 4 millimeters or thicker; produce and other food-holding bags; dry cleaner wrap; newspaper bags; door hanger bags and plastic bags sold as multiples intended for garbage bags or pet waste. Plastic bags also could be used for food items that may leak.
Charge for paper shopping bags
Retailers would be required to impose 5-cent minimum charge on all single-use paper shopping bags. Retailers would keep the money.
Retailers would not collect the fee from people using the federal food assistance program.
Ordinance would phase out and eventually ban foam leftover food containers that can't be reused or composted.
For more information
Go to www.bagitduluth.org or to Facebook @BagItDuluth.
The group is hosting an informational meeting for businesses on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Duluth.
Bag it Duluth has scheduled a community conversation meeting for Feb. 16 at 7 p.m at Denfeld High School.