Lawrence’s Sustainability Advisory Board voted unanimously Thursday to approve an ordinance banning establishments from using single-use plastic bags.
The draft ordinance will go next to the Lawrence City Commission for consideration.
If the commission approves it, the ordinance will ban establishments — including grocery stores, restaurants and others — from providing customers with plastic shopping bags.
Produce bags and reusable bags are exempted from the ban, and single-use disposable paper bags would still be allowed.
A previous draft of the ordinance would have required establishments to charge customers 15 cents per single-use disposable bag. The approved draft does not include any fees for customers.
A few public commenters spoke in favor of the ban. Some encouraged the SAB to move faster than the draft’s timeline of one year from the time the commission approves it for establishments to stop using plastic bags.
SAB member Nancy Muma moved to change the timeline to nine months instead. That would allow adequate time to educate the public and to allow businesses to go through the plastic bags they already have, she said.
Board members ultimately decided to leave compliance to city staff to determine. The draft had included that “Citizens can report non-compliance to the City,” but in the verbal motion, that line was struck.
“I really am not happy about the compliance thing,” SAB Chair Kira McPherson had said earlier in the meeting. “We don’t want residents snitching on each other. People are already completely divided and really mentally unwell — I don’t think we should have anything that opens up even the smallest gap for fascist or antisocial behavior.”
The city’s goal, according to the draft ordinance, is to educate the public about the environmental hazards of single-use plastic bags, including the harm they can cause animals and the operational costs to the city when they clog the sewers, drainage ditches and recycling machinery. They also degrade into microplastics that contaminate food and water supplies.
Public commenter Kathleen Harned said she hoped the education piece of the ordinance would be strong.
Board member Kay Johnson said the education part would be up to city staff rather than the board members. She said the board can make suggestions for education, but to remember that the sustainability office is currently short-staffed.
McPherson, in voting in favor of the ordinance, said, “I really want us to remember that the outreach and education is going to be the pivotal part because the minute we get this passed and the minute we bring it in front of the City Commission, people in Topeka are going to start working on anti-ban bans, which is what they always do with us.”
The Kansas Legislature has attempted to prevent cities from banning single-use plastics, as recently as the 2022 session.
The board also struck language describing produce bags as bags that do not have handles, as one local grocery store said theirs do.
The board discussed striking the exemption for produce bags from the ordinance, but board member Steven Cramer recommended against that. He said eliminating plastic bags at the point of sale was already “a major step.”
“We’re in this to educate people and get people on a journey,” he said. “… Going after the produce bags, the seafood bags and everything else I think may put more of a burden on people than they’re ready to take right now, and I would love to see us take a solid first step.”
The Lawrence City Commission will consider the ordinance at a future meeting still to be determined.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.