Lawrence city commissioners request some tweaks to plastic bag ban, but most voice general support

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Lawrence city commissioners indicated Tuesday that they will likely approve a ban on single-use plastic bags when a revision of the ordinance comes back to them in the near future.

The Sustainability Advisory Board has long discussed options aiming to reduce the use of plastics in the city, which in turn could help reduce the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and prevent some pollution from the bags, contamination through microplastics from bags’ degradation, and animal deaths from eating the bags, among other concerns.


Further, SAB member Nancy Muma, chair of the University of Kansas’ Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, told commissioners that plastic microparticles are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

“So each and every week on average, we consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic,” she said. “… That’s a lot of plastic in our bodies. And this stuff isn’t benign.” The body attacks it, causing chronic inflammation, which leads to heart and bowel diseases, cancer, arthritis, dementia, depression and anxiety, Muma said.

Produce bags or product bags used to prevent contamination or damage would still be allowed under the proposed ordinance. Reusable bags would be exempted from the ban, and single-use disposable paper bags would still be allowed. 

Kathy Richardson, the city’s director of sustainability, told commissioners on Tuesday that the Sustainability Advisory Board also wanted to add language requiring that any paper bags or reusable plastic bags sold or distributed be made of 40% post-consumer recycled content, “which many other cities also require,” Richardson said. Sprouts in Lawrence sells reusable bags that fit that description for 10 cents apiece, she said.

Commissioners on Tuesday said they wanted to see the 40% PCRC information written into the ordinance before they consider final approval.

“We’re not eradicating plastic bags from our community,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “We’re moving to a more environmentally responsible product — paper and plastic, in addition to cloth, nylon and all the others. It’s creating choice so that people can make smart economic and environmental choices based on where they are.”

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he’s not 100% sure he’s going to vote in favor of the ordinance, but he mentioned a few tweaks he wanted to see in a revised version.

He had concerns about the language regarding fines for noncompliance. He said some city ordinances say someone could be fined “up to $100,” for example, for a violation, meaning a municipal judge can waive those fines in some cases. The draft plastic bag ordinance states that people who upon adjudication are found to be in violation of the ordinance would be subject “to a fine of $100” for a first conviction, leaving less flexibility.

“Clearly, the goal here is not the fine — it’s to bring people into compliance,” he said.

He said he would like to see the ordinance changed to be limited to an establishment or organization that is “selling” something as opposed to “distributing” something, giving an example of a kindergarten teacher sending a project home with a student in a plastic bag.

Finkeldei also suggested for a code official to return to an establishment after a warning. Brian Jimenez, code official and assistant director of planning and development services, said he thought probably five to seven business days would give an establishment a reasonable amount of time to comply.


The other three commissioners present agreed with Finkeldei’s suggested tweaks. Mayor Lisa Larsen was not in attendance.

Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn agreed with including the 40% PCRP in the ordinance, and he said he thinks this time provides a great opportunity to provide more education on the retail and consumer side if the commission does pass the ordinance.

The commission heard from about 10 people who spoke in favor of the ordinance.

If the commission approves the ordinance, the city’s planning department would need another full-time position to enforce it, according to staff. That would be a full-time code compliance officer with a salary of $94,000. They would spend about one-third of their time on enforcement of the bag ban and two-thirds of their time on other code enforcement work, according to a memo in the meeting agenda.

Commissioner Courtney Shipley said she was on board with adding the FTE position, but approval of the ordinance would not necessarily mean the position is going to be approved in the budget process later in the summer. She did say, however, that she would “absolutely” vote for the ordinance with the requested changes made.

The ordinance will return at the commission’s next meeting, which will be Tuesday, June 20. The June 13 regular meeting is canceled.

As the ordinance is currently drafted, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

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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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