Duluth mayor opposes fee for shopping bags

In order to encourage people to adopt reusable cloth shopping bags, a group of Duluth residents is proposing the city pass an ordinance requiring local retailers to charge a pass-through fee of no less than a nickel for every single-use paper and...

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson
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In order to encourage people to adopt reusable cloth shopping bags, a group of Duluth residents is proposing the city pass an ordinance requiring local retailers to charge a pass-through fee of no less than a nickel for every single-use paper and plastic bag they hand out to customers.

But Duluth Mayor Emily Larson lined up against that proposal this week.

"I don't support it. A big part of that is because we have worked really hard to transition out of a fee-based economy as it relates to municipal responsibilities," she said.

Larson pointed to the city's shift away from charging residents a street fee last year, instead incorporating that charge into the local property tax levy. She also cited the city's incremental efforts to phase out a streetlight fee.

Larson noted that some local retailers already offer a rebate to customers who bring their own bags.


But Jamie Harvie, coordinator of the Bag It Duluth Campaign, said more needs to be done.

"I think this issue is a vital and important metaphor for Duluth and the Great Lakes. We express our love of the water. We swim in it. We win these national awards as this great outdoor center. And it seems that now's the time to demonstrate and stand up and be consistent with our actions to how we bring tourism in and how we appreciate our water," he said.

Harvie pointed to the immense scale of the problem.

"The plastic particles are flowing out, 20 million pounds per year into the Great Lakes. They're going through the St. Lawrence Seaway System and out into the Atlantic. There's no question that our oceans are getting filled with plastic. So wherever we are, we have to start thinking differently," he said.

A state law passed last session prevents Minnesota cities from restricting the use of disposable bags, but Harvie said fees can be a useful tool to alter behavior.

"Cities such as Chicago and others have introduced similar policies and have seen a dramatic reduction in usage. So this isn't something tremendously radical. It's consistent with a lot of policy at the local, state and national level," he said.

Larson said her focus continues to be on winning public support for a referendum calling for a half-percent sales tax to fund street improvements in Duluth.

""I'm cognizant that the dedicated half-percent sales tax is a big ask, and I think that there can be an exhaustion on the part of residents with an addition from this angle and another addition from another. When it comes to something so basic as streets and infrastructure, let's get that done. Let's get the basics of the core functions of government achieved, and then maybe there will be time for a conversation about what a bag policy could look like, but that's not my priority right now. Providing for the basic fundamentals of government and the basic infrastructure people need is my main priority. Period," she said.


Harvie acknowledged that efforts to stem the use of disposable bags will have to take a back seat to other local issues for the moment, despite a recent editorial push by supporters to promote the idea.

"It's important to realize that what we were trying to do with the op-ed was to let people know where the Bag It Campaign is standing, with the recognition that there are some important legislative priorities in front of the council this fall, such as earned sick and safe time. So we're going to be letting that agenda move forward, and that's in the express interests of the councilors who said they'd be willing to move this forward. But they wanted to make sure that we understood that there are some other priorities the council has over the next couple of months," he said.

While 1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson agreed that other issues should take precedence heading into the November election, he said he generally supports the efforts of the Bag It Duluth Campaign to discourage the use of disposable bags through the adoption of new policies.

"I think it has some merit, but I think the time for having that discussion at a council level is not now," he said.

"Of course, I'm a strong advocate for clean water, and plastics don't need to be in our lake. So this is a really important issue, and I appreciate the people at Bag It Duluth who have broad support across the community to continue this discussion," Anderson said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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