Lori Lawrence: Cities in Kansas require freedom to ban single-use plastic bags, protect environment (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

Want to submit a letter or column to the Times? Great! Click here.

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Lori Lawrence is founder of Bag Free Wichita.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the useful life of a single-use plastic bag is 12 minutes.

These bags take about 500 years to degrade, and then only degrade into microplastics. The average American family takes home about 1,500 plastic bags a year and recycles only 1%. The population of Wichita is 397,532, and there are 2.5 people in the average American household. Therefore, Wichita households use and do not recycle more than 220 million single-use plastic bags each year, or roughly 19 million every month.

Wichita leaders decided to explore a citywide ban on plastic bags in February of 2020, then COVID-19 struck. Even though this group stopped meeting for several months, it didn’t take long for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (which opposes bans on plastics, straws, chemicals and other items according to page 13 of its Legislative and Policy Agenda) to sharpen its dictatorial pencil and craft a proposal to ban the bans — a bill that would prohibit local governments from imposing any tax, fee or ban on single-use bags or other single-use plastic items.

This bill failed due to COVID-19 in 2021, but a revised bill reared its head again in 2022 and was ultimately defeated because lawmakers from both parties understood that removing local control, referred to as Home Rule in our Kansas Constitution, was unconstitutional.

Kansas can and should do better.

In recent years, hundreds of communities across the country have moved to ban plastic bags. Most recently, the entire country of Canada did so.

Single-use plastic bags have become the new tumbleweed, somersaulting across the landscape, hooking into tree branches, littering roads and ending up in rivers and oceans, where they contaminate the water and harm fish and wildlife. Local jurisdictions should have a say in addressing single-use bags and other plastic products in their own communities.

Wichita is one of a handful of Kansas communities, including Lawrence, Salina and Prairie Village, that has begun considering bans on plastic products. Both Walmart and Kroger, the parent company of Kansas Dillons grocery stores, have plans to phase out single-use bags in Kansas and elsewhere.

State lawmakers should encourage those efforts and look for other ways to protect the environment, not put up roadblocks that preempt cities from doing so.

Some retailers worry about irregular standards across the state. This is a false concern. Every store orders their consumables on an as-needed basis. Register tape, toilet paper and plastic bags can all be ordered when or if they are needed.

Banning or taxing plastic bags would have one negative consequence. Shoppers would be forced to buy reusable bags, which can cost $1 or more, or pay a surcharge for the single-use plastic ones.

— Lori Lawrence is founder of Bag Free Wichita, chair of Kansas Sierra Club’s Southwind Group and co-founder of Society of Alternative Resources. She now serves on the Single Use Plastic Bag Task Force and the Sustainability Integration Board, both with the City of Wichita.

According to the Economic Impact Study in 2021 done by the W. Frank Barton School of Business Center for Economic Development and Business Research for the Single Use Plastic Bag Task Force in Wichita, the “effect of a single-use plastic bag ban or tax on consumers would primarily be felt through the additional cost of bags that would be borne by consumers when businesses are no longer providing plastic bags free of charge. These effects are expected to be between $10 to $15 annually.”

That additional cost would affect lower-income residents the most, though many groups including the Sierra Club plan to raise funds to purchase and donate reusable bags for the 62,000 people in poverty in Wichita to offset this cost concern.

Wichita residents — through our local elected officials — should be able to exercise judgment and decide what is best for our city and for ourselves.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Lawrence Professional Firefighters: Incumbent city commissioners are good for emergency services (Column)

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”It is understandable that everybody has different priorities, but we can assume that public safety is high on almost everybody’s list. This is why your Lawrence Professional Firefighters have confidence in the three incumbent candidates,” the IAFF Local 1596 executive board writes in this column.


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