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Our View: Get ready to battle over bags

Bob Englehart/Cagle Cartoons

Shouldered against the pebbled, sandy shores of the greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior, Duluth finds itself on the front line of protecting this priceless supply of clean, fresh water against environmental degradation and harm.

Even if a few of us bristle at that responsibility, most here accept it and even embrace it.

But that doesn't mean we'll necessarily accept or embrace a proposal to ban all thin plastic shopping bags from Duluth stores while charging at least 5 cents at checkouts for paper bags instead as a way of encouraging the use of reusable bags that don't as often end up in landfills. Especially not right away.

As much as we all cherish and want to protect the big lake — our lake — from pollution, the loss of convenient shopping bags at the ends of checkout lines represents a major culture and lifestyle shift for our community. Put simply, it'd be a big change. We're being asked to give up convenience. That doesn't happen easily.

And this proposal: having to lug reusable bags every time we go to the store would be an added burden, especially on those already struggling to access healthy food options in their neighborhoods and those who rely on public transportation to get around, sometimes with kids and strollers and other necessary items in tow. Now we have to remember bags, too?

As no-big-deal as 5 cents for a paper bag sounds, any fee adds up quickly, especially for the thousands of Duluthians already watching their nickels. And those paper bags are more difficult to carry, especially if getting to the store and home again on foot or on the bus. Or both.

None of which necessarily means a bag ban is a bad plan for Duluth. There's no denying there's a pollution problem here and worldwide with plastic bags — an enormous problem. Minnesotans throw away nearly 12 trillion plastic bags every year, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimate, while only recycling about 10 percent of them. That contributes to nearly 22 million pounds of plastics entering the Great Lakes every year, a percentage of it carried by the wind.

We are even "finding plastic in our fish in Lake Superior," Jamie Harvie, coordinator of the bag-ban campaign here, called Bag It Duluth, said in a News Tribune story last week. "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."

Getting there will take time. Such a culture shift has to be built via a strong grassroots movement, and, so far, Bag It Duluth's Facebook page has only 483 "likes," nearly a third of them added after the campaign's announcement six days ago.

To their credit, Harvie and his supporters seem willing to invest that time. A city ordinance won't be drafted until input is sought, received and carefully considered from local businesses and the public at large. Many months may be needed to fully examine ordinances elsewhere, including in Minneapolis, believed to be the only Minnesota city now banning plastic bags. Good ideas are probably out there. Finding what's best for Duluth will be an undertaking but a worthwhile one.

The sell won't be easy here. We love our conveniences. And reusing thin plastic bags to line the little trash cans in our bathrooms. Plus, the plastics industry has a campaign of its own to buck bag bans as they're proposed in communities like Duluth. They argue that the production of paper bags results in more carbon dioxide emissions, which climate experts say is causing global warming. They also argue that producing reusable bags sucks up an unacceptable amount of water and energy and requires pesticides for growing cotton. And, buoyed by industry groups, bag-ban opponents haven't been shy about taking legal action to preserve the plastic-bag industry.

Do they have a point? Probably several. Do those proposing to ban plastic bags make arguments just as convincing? Sure. What's best for Duluth, no doubt, is in the middle. It can be hammered out, taking as much time as necessary. With the campaign now launched and with outspoken environmentally minded elected leaders on our Duluth City Council, you can be sure that's what will happen.

A convincing argument is necessary, after all — along with our buy-in — before the convenience of plastic shopping bags can successfully be made a thing of the past in our community.

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