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Our view: Charging for grocery bags a burden on lower-income Duluthians

We've all witnessed the embarrassing, sometimes heart-wrenching bind. In line at the grocery store. All items scanned. But then the total exceeds cash on hand. And items start going back.

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We've all witnessed the embarrassing, sometimes heart-wrenching bind. In line at the grocery store. All items scanned. But then the total exceeds cash on hand. And items start going back.

Imagine the same difficult, troubling scenario if the grocery store was required to, in accordance with city law, charge for shopping bags, too. Another five cents or 10 cents per bag may not seem like much to many of us, but to those already literally counting nickels and dimes to buy the gotta-haves in life, like food, it'd add up quickly.

In Duluth, a city law is being proposed to require just such a fee on the bags we use to carry home our purchases. Remember the Bag it Duluth Campaign, the grassroots group that launched an effort in January to get single-use plastic bags banned from stores citywide? City bag bans were kiboshed by the Minnesota Legislature this year. So Bag it Duluth is back now with a new approach it plans to pitch to elected city councilors: a city ordinance to require stores to charge a nickel or a dime or maybe even more for shopping bags that now are being provided for free.

Bag It Duluth's motivation here is well-intentioned and noble. The idea is preventing our landscape from becoming littered with discarded bags. The push is all about protecting the environment.

"We're trying to encourage people to use reusable bags instead," the group's Jamie Harvie said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page.

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But there are better ways to do that than a law that would be a nightmare to enforce and that would place a burden on those who least can afford it.

Especially with the jury still out on whether reusable bags are even a greener alternative. Where they're required, they actually aren't used or reused as often as we might like, according to a study cited in a February commentary in the News Tribune from the American Progressive Bag Alliance of Washington, D.C. Shoppers in that study said they forgot to bring their reusable bags to the store at least 40 percent of the time. And that's with reusable cotton bags, because of the materials and resources it takes to produce them, having to be remembered and used 131 times before being a better environmental option, according to the alliance.

Recycling and retail take-back programs make more sense, said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the alliance, which represents 24,600 workers in more than 40 states. Some Duluth stores already are successfully taking back plastic bags so they can be reused.

The Bag it Duluth Campaign's Harvie points out that, according to his group, Duluth-area grocery stores are spending anywhere from $765,000 to $2.3 million per year right now purchasing and providing to their shoppers single-use bags. It's an expense a bag fee could help the stores recoup, he said. And that's enough being spent to buy every Duluthian 10 reusable bags instead, he said.

Rather than a burdensome new law then, stores could be encouraged to do just that, to provide customers with reusable bags. Biggie grocers like Cub and Super One could lead the way. They'd be able to absorb the initiative's phase-in period, while consumer habits shift. Thriving warehouse stores like Sam's Club already don't provide plastic bags at all for customers.

A week and two days ago, the City Council in Minneapolis, where a ban on plastic bags was to take effect this summer before being nullified by the Minnesota Legislature, backed away from a proposal to require its own five-cent fee per plastic shopping bag. Enacting the bag fee was a threat to local businesses, Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson argued.

"I think it's important to understand what we are doing ... to small businesses in this city, which is apparently trying to drive them out," Johnson said, according to the Star Tribune. "And it's not right. It's not fair."

With a rekindled debate over plastic bags - and how best to reduce their waste and protect the environment - about to heat up in Duluth, such concerns demand to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully here.

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A city law dictating a fee for shopping bags? Ask shoppers whose budgets already are limited what they'd be willing to set aside at the checkout to afford that.

Related Topics: DULUTH CITY COUNCIL
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