Duluth single-use bag fee caught up in debate

Proposed ordinance may be tabled to allow for more discussion

Single-use paper and plastic bags have stirred concern about litter, prompting Duluth to consider an ordinance requiring retailers to charge customers for them.

A proposed ordinance that would require businesses to charge customers a nickel for every single-use plastic or paper bag they dispense could be waylaid by the Duluth City Council Monday.

At a Thursday evening agenda session meeting, Council President Noah Hobbs shared his intentions to table the measure Monday. He told fellow councilors that he hopes to schedule an Oct. 24 committee-of-the-whole meeting "so that we can have a more robust conversation and figure out where we are and have more dialog" regarding the proposed new policy, which is designed to encourage people to switch to reusable tote bags.

The ordinance, which was introduced by 3rd District Councilor Em Westerlund, is scheduled for its second reading on Monday and could go to a council vote that night if Hobbs' motion to table fails.

But 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said he would support a pause to allow for more public discourse and council deliberation on the matter.

"I'll also repeat my suggestion that, while on the one hand we take sufficient time to do this right and get this right, that we also try to bring our concerns forward in a timely way, so that we can move through them efficiently," Sipress said.


At Large City Councilor Zack Filipovich said he still isn't clear if the bag fees would be subject to sales tax and would like to have a firm grasp of how those revenues would be treated.

As drafted, the ordinance would waive any bag fees for low-income people who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Women, Infants and Children Program.

But 4th District Councilor Renee Van Nett suggested that limited exemption may not go far enough to protect people in poverty.

At Large Councilor Arik Forsman said he had spoken to a retailer that expressed privacy concerns for SNAP and WIC recipients who currently can use their benefits discreetly.

"In their eyes, there likely wouldn't be a workaround without that person verbalizing that they are on assistance to be able to have that discounted from their purchase," said Forsman, indicating that he'd like fellow councilors to discuss how the policy might be fashioned to avoid any potential stigmatization of low-income customers.

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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