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Lawrence City Commission takes next steps on plastic bag ban, methane gas at multimodal transfer hub

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday asked staff to review the Sustainability Advisory Board’s proposed ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. They also decided to move ahead with plans for the multimodal transfer facility to use methane gas.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen pulled three SAB items from the consent agenda for discussion. The plastic bag ordinance has changed shape several times since the city first began discussing how to reduce single-use plastics before the pandemic started.

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Most recently, the SAB on June 30 approved an ordinance that would ban establishments — including grocery stores, restaurants and others — from providing customers with plastic shopping bags. Produce bags and reusable bags would be exempted from the ban, and single-use disposable paper bags would still be allowed. 

Commissioners heard from some public commenters on both sides of the issue, as well as one who said the proposed ban did not go far enough.

Public commenter Joel Campbell, with the Sunrise Movement, pointed out that there was a bill that passed in the Kansas Legislature this year that would have essentially put a ban on plastic bag bans. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill, and there was not enough support in the Legislature to overturn her veto.

“I’m concerned that they will try something similar given the history of the Kansas Legislature next legislative session,” Campbell said. “So I just wanted to encourage the city to really move on this as fast as we can because the sooner we start, the sooner we can have the infrastructure in place to continue it even if there is a ban on plastic bag bans.”

Commissioner Amber Sellers said she was concerned about an ordinance that focused solely on banning plastic bags because of the Legislature. She also raised concerns that the ordinance could disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, including seniors and those who qualify for SNAP or WIC benefits, and she thought some exemptions needed to be built into the ordinance. She said she’d like to find out what a fee structure would look like.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he thought the commission should have a policy discussion before spending much staff time on the ordinance as it was drafted.

Larsen said she wanted to hear from staff about what’s workable with the current code system — and “whether you charge, or whether it’s banned, or whether you don’t do anything, what it would take for staff to implement something like that.”

City Manager Craig Owens said staff would do a cursory review of what policy options might be and bring them back to the commission to make some decisions, with the understanding that the state Legislature could impact timing considerations.

The commission also discussed a memo from the SAB regarding the city’s plans for its multimodal transfer facility. SAB members raised concerns that the transfer facility, under current plans, will be using methane gas rather than be built all-electric.

“Methane is not a renewable energy resource, and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions,” Kay Johnson, SAB member, told commissioners. “… This decision also intuitively reflects an actual increase in greenhouse gas emissions each year that methane is used for operations at the new transfer facility.”

Kira McPherson, chair of the SAB, echoed Johnson’s sentiments.

“We don’t have a choice about this. This is not something where you get a choice,” McPherson said. “This is like when you get cancer and they tell you what you have to do. We have to bring our emissions down to net zero.”

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Melinda Harger, assistant director of Municipal Services and Operations, said it would cost the city $30,000 to $40,000 for consultants to finish a detailed study, plus $80,000 to $100,000 in extra capital costs. It could also extend the project by several months.

“When they took the initial looks at it and had their team that does the electrification projects take a look at it, they were not recommending it for our project,” she said.

Adam Weigel, manager of Lawrence Transit and parking, said that four to six additional months for the project may not seem like a long time to some, but some of the most vulnerable community members ride the bus, and “it’s quite a big deal for some of our passengers who’ve been making do with what we have out there.”

Commissioners ultimately decided to stick with the guidance they’d given city staff back in March — to move forward with the project using methane gas.

Sellers said she wants to see advisory boards work with staff to come up with a process and plan so that future projects can be evaluated for sustainability and renewable energy goals from the start, “so that we don’t have to continue to revisit this conversation.”

The commission also heard briefly about suggested changes to the city’s noxious weed ordinance. The changes and updates aim to provide clarifications on enforcement and to promote the use of native plants and sustainable landscaping. Owens said the city would look into it and bring back updates on a city manager’s report within the next month or so.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Lawrence City Commission takes next steps on plastic bag ban, methane gas at multimodal transfer hub

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Lawrence city commissioners Tuesday night asked staff to review a proposed ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and decided to move ahead with plans for the multimodal transfer facility to use methane gas.

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