A fee on plastic bags dispensed to shoppers in Duluth is slated to kick in Oct. 15 — more than 18 months after it was initially expected to do so.

Following lively and lengthy public debate, the Duluth City Council adopted an ordinance in November 2019, requiring local businesses to charge customers a nickel per plastic bag, with the new policy expected to take effect on April 1, 2020.

But with the advent of the national COVID-19 pandemic, councilors voted three times to push back the implementation date.

The latest decision to delay the fee came in December, when 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson introduced an ordinance that tied the launch of the policy to the expiration of the city's emergency declaration. Under that ordinance, which passed 7-2, the fee was to take effect within 45 days of the stated emergency ending. The city of Duluth allowed its emergency declaration to expire July 16, and the ongoing countdown began.

While Anderson continues to believe the pause was justified at what was already a stressful time for consumers, he said he's glad to see the implementation date for the fee now nearing.

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"It's real. It's going to happen. The community has wanted this for a long time. … So I'm excited to see this go into effect," he said.

As one of two council members opposed to Anderson's call for a continued delay in December, 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf said she still doesn't understand the rationale for repeatedly pushing back the plastic bag policy at a time when local retailers were already ready to implement it.

Randorf contends the delays have only added to confusion about when the fee will take effect.

"It's overdue. We need to do the right thing, and people can avoid any fees by just bringing a bag with them," she said.

"We don't need so much plastic. We don't need to live in a throw-away society," Randorf said.

Plastic bags wait for groceries at the Kenwood Plaza Super One. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Plastic bags wait for groceries at the Kenwood Plaza Super One. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Jamie Harvie helped organize a local campaign called Bag It Duluth, and the group of concerned residents collected about 3,000 signatures on a resolution in support of bag fees. After all that hard work, he said it has been disappointing to see the policy shelved for so many months.

Nevertheless, he remained philosophical, saying: "Duluth is going to be ready when it's ready. From the standpoint of climate change and the climate emergency and the ecological crisis that we we're facing, this is long overdue. But we, as a community, need to be ready to come to grips with this bigger context. So, it seems strange when there's no technical reason for us to have delayed this, but it is what it is."

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Harvie said he remains confident the bag fee will prompt more consumers to make the switch to reusable bags.

"The reason why we asked the council to institute a fee is that, across the globe, it is seen as the most effective way of changing behavior," he said.

Although there were initial concerns that reusable bags could actually be contaminated with the coronavirus and might actually pose a public health danger, Randorf said those fears have been put to rest, as it has become clear that airborne transmission of the virus is the primary means of infection. Nevertheless, she suggested people regularly wash reusable bags to keep them from becoming soiled.

Harvie said there was never good evidence that reusable bags presented a legitimate risk of COVID-19 transmission.

"The plastics industry did a very good job, which was very well documented, at trying to prey on people's fears and concerns around the virus. But I don't want to downplay the fact that when COVID hit there was a lot of anxiety, and there's still a lot of anxiety," he said. "But the research shows, as we now know, that it's primarily airborne, and those fears have been put to rest."