Lawrence City Commission to consider revived plastic bag ban

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday will once again consider a citywide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Commissioners in a 2-2 tie on June 20 voted down the ordinance that would have banned the use of single-use plastic bags in city limits. Mayor Lisa Larsen was absent from that meeting. She asked city staff members last month to bring it back on a future agenda.

The proposed ordinance has been in discussion for years, and the Sustainability Advisory Board has suggested multiple versions of it. It aims 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.

The latest iteration of the ordinance states that “Unless otherwise exempted under this Article, the use of Single-use Disposable Plastic Bags is hereby prohibited within the City limits.”

“… It shall be unlawful for any person, who owns, manages, operates, or otherwise controls an Establishment, to provide or permit to be provided to any Consumer, at a check-out stand, cash register, point of sale or distribution, or other point of departure, any Single-use Disposable Plastic Bag, for the purpose of enabling the Consumer to transport from the Establishment food, beverages, goods, or merchandise.” Violations could be punished by fines of $100, $200 or up to $500 for third or subsequent convictions occurring within a year of the first conviction.

The ordinance lists several exemptions, including produce or product bags meant to prevent contamination, dry cleaning or garment bags, newspapers, farmers’ markets, the sale of live animals such as fish, and more. Paper bags would still be allowed if they contain at least 40% recycled materials. The intent is to encourage the use of reusable bags, and reusable plastic bags “must be labeled with the post-consumer recycled content percentage, the mil thickness, and the word ‘reusable’ on the bag,” the draft ordinance states.

There is no exemption in the ordinance for personal use, such as cleaning up after pet dogs or cats.

Before they voted the ordinance down, commissioners had indicated at their prior meeting that they’d likely support the ordinance with a few tweaks.

However, “I’m still concerned about the impact on the small businesses or restaurants or small retailers, and so I’m going to vote against it,” said Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, who pulled the draft ordinance from the June 20 consent agenda for discussion.

Enforcement of the ordinance would essentially rely on commissioners later approving another full-time position, according to city staff. That would be a full-time code compliance officer at an annual cost of $94,000 for salary, benefits and vehicle. 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.

“We tell Topeka not to give us unfunded mandates, and this is essentially an unfunded mandate,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said ahead of her June 20 vote to deny the ordinance. “We’re putting the cart before the horse and say we want to pass an ordinance that is – enforcement is predicated on us approving an FTE to enforce it.”

Five written public comments in the agenda as of Sunday evening encouraged the commission to approve the ordinance. See the full draft ordinance and agenda item at this link.

Commissioners will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The meeting will be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel, Commissioners hear public comment during meetings in person as well as via Zoom; register for the Zoom meeting at this link.

Members of the public can email their comments to until noon the day of the meeting. Click here to view the full meeting agenda on the city’s website.

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Note: This post has been corrected to reflect the annual cost to the city for the code compliance officer position.

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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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