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Lawrence’s Sustainability Advisory Board to revisit single-use bag fee

The Sustainability Advisory Board on Wednesday will revisit, and might vote on, a proposed ordinance that would require establishments to charge customers 15 cents per single-use disposable bag for any purchase.

Talks about such an ordinance began in May 2018, when concerned students of the former Kennedy Elementary School made a presentation to the Lawrence City Commission about the damaging environmental effects of plastics. The SAB’s Single Use Plastics Subcommittee presented a report to the City Commission in August 2019 and then collected further public feedback.

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The topic was moved to the back burner while the Kansas Legislature considered a measure that would prevent such an ordinance at the city level, but that bill died in May 2020, according to the advisory board’s agenda materials. The pandemic, too, had implications — particularly early on, as uncertainty about whether COVID-19 could spread via surfaces spurred some stores to temporarily ban customers from bringing their own reusable bags.

Now the issue is back on the SAB’s agenda. The draft ordinance would require establishments — including grocery stores, department stores, restaurants, gas stations, schools, hospitals, religious institutions, farmers’ markets and more — to charge customers 15 cents per paper or plastic disposable bag used.

The fee would not apply to plastic “product” bags such as produce and bulk purchase bags that are used to prevent contamination, nor would it apply to reusable bags. Establishments would retain 100% of each bag fee they collect, the draft ordinance states.

One of the most prevalent concerns cited in public comments was the potential for a disproportionate impact on people with low incomes. Some public commenters suggested instead an incentive to use reusable bags, such as a credit of 5 or 10 cents per disposable bag saved.

There are two exemptions for the fees in the ordinance: consumers who can provide evidence that they are participants in federal, state or local food assistance programs, or “during a time of emergency,” when the city may suspend enforcement by a resolution.

As of late Tuesday, two written public comments submitted ahead of the meeting — one from Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability (LETUS), one from Lawrence’s Sustainability Action Network — encourage the board to support the ordinance.

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Advisory boards make recommendations to the Lawrence City Commission. If the board recommends the ordinance and commissioners then approve it, it would go into effect on July 1, 2022. After six months, if a “significant percentage” of establishments are not in compliance, the ordinance may be updated to include penalties for those establishments, according to materials in the meeting agenda.

Written public comment must be received by the sustainability office by noon Wednesday, via email to sustainability@lawrenceks.org, to be included in the agenda. Members of the public may make comments during the meeting in person at City Hall (masks are required) or via Zoom. Register for the Zoom meeting at this link.

The meeting is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. View the whole agenda at this link. Watch the meeting live on the city’s website or YouTube Channel.

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