A proposed ordinance that would require Duluth vendors to charge customers at least a nickel for each single-use bag they dispense received its first City Council reading Monday night.

The ordinance was introduced by 3rd District Councilor Em Westerlund with the stated intent “to reduce litter and the harmful environmental impact caused by single-use carryout bags. The proposed fee should be ready for consideration and action by the council as a whole when the body meets again Oct. 14.

Nevertheless, supporters of the policy showed up in force, with 19 speakers advocating for the charge to be imposed.

Nancy Sudak, a community physician, said: "The current situation with plastics is a major health issue. Plastic debris from single-use plastic bags is literally trashing our planet and its inhabitants. "

She said that as plastic accumulates in the environment in ever-greater quantities, "All of earth's inhabitants are ingesting these fragments to some degree. This is a well recognized problem, so much so that the U.N. secretary general has declared a global emergency over plastics in the oceans."

Sudak noted that other cities that have begun charging for throwaway bags have seen a 70% to 90% reduction in their use.

Sophie Williams, a senior at Duluth East High School, recalled testifying before the council 2½ years ago and expressed frustration that city leaders have been so slow to act on the issue.

"I had faith that changes would be made in an effort to cut down on the amount of plastic Duluthians consume on a daily basis. Two and a half years later, I still see plastic bags tumbling down the street. I still see plastic bags caught in trees. And I still find plastic bags in Lake Superior.," she said.

The ordinance asserts that “single-use carryout bags are polluting city waterways and sewers, endangering wildlife, contributing to climate change and causing unsightly litter.” It also notes that plastic bags placed in landfills are slow to decompose and “are a potential source of harmful chemical pollution.”

Westerlund referred to the proposed 5-cent charge as nominal and not punitive, explaining it is intended to improve awareness.

She, too, warned of further council delay, saying: "If anything, the situation has only become more dire over these past two years as the council has continued to resist taking a formal vote on this issue."

Council President Noah Hobbs thanked speakers for sharing their thoughts Monday but noted that councilors have yet to hold a committee-of-the-whole meeting on the proposed charge and said he would like to have a deeper discussion before pushing ahead with the issue, especially at a time when the council is occupied with putting together a budget for the coming year.

The ordinance, as written, would apply to both single-use plastic and paper bags and is intended to promote the use of reusable tote bags.

However, it does provide for a number of exemptions, including the following types of bags that could still be provided free of charge:

  • Bags without handles that are used to carry food or other merchandise within a store to prevent them from coming into contact with other items

  • Pharmacy bags used to contain prescription drugs

  • Bags used to transport takeout food or beverages

  • Bags used to protect dry cleaning, newspapers or other paper items

Fees also would be waived for customers receiving public assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Women, Infants and Children Program.

Retailers would be expected to charge a pass-through fee to offset the cost of single-use bags and other expenses associated with the new policy.

Businesses that fail to comply with the proposed new ordinance could face financial consequences in the form of up to a $100 fine for a first violation, up to $200 for a second violation and as much as $300 for third and/or subsequent violations.

Any retailer who continues to disregard the bag ordinance could face daily charges on an ongoing basis.

If approved by the council, the new ordinance mandating bag fees could take effect in January.