Lawrence City Commission approves ban on single-use plastic bags

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Post last updated at 6:36 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9:

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday approved a revived ordinance banning single-use plastic bags citywide.

The 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.

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 approved 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,” though enforcement actions described in the ordinance only apply to establishments.

“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 will go into effect March 1, 2024. City staff members will work on communicating the change to businesses and the public over the next several months.

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 will 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 ordinance states.

There is no exemption in the ordinance for personal use, such as cleaning up after pet dogs or cats. However, Sustainability Director Kathy Richardson said during the Sustainability Advisory Board’s Wednesday meeting that people will “absolutely” still be able to use plastic bags to clean up after their pets.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Michael Almon, of the Sustainability Action Network, encourages the Lawrence City Commission to approve a ban on single-use plastic bags, Aug. 8, 2023.

Enforcement of the ordinance would essentially rely on commissioners later approving another full-time position, according to the agenda item. 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.

City Manager Craig Owens said the commission could pass the ordinance without a staffing increase, and the position was not currently in the budget for next year. He said the city didn’t know how many complaints there might be about this ordinance or how much trouble there might be in compliance, and the city could adjust mid-budget.

Commissioners heard from several people during public comment, most in favor of the ordinance.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Joe Douglas holds a reusable bag he bought in Canada as he speaks to the Lawrence City Commission, Aug. 8, 2023.

Commissioner Amber Sellers proposed a sunset on the ordinance after three years to go back and take another look at it. She said adding a date to make sure it’s top of mind for the commission to revisit and discuss whether they want to take it further or change anything about it. Larsen said she was not interested in that.

Commissioner Courtney Shipley likened the ordinance to a smoking ban many years ago: She said a lot of people were concerned that banning cigarettes in restaurants and bars would cause small businesses to fail, but that hasn’t happened.

“We all enjoy bars and restaurants a lot better because we do not smoke inside them,” she said. “… The fact that it took us this long to even get this far in the conversation is kind of an example of how we get in our own way sometimes.”

The commission approved the ordinance on a 3-2 vote, with Shipley, Larsen and Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn in favor, and Commissioner Brad Finkeldei and Sellers opposed.

The ordinance will return on a future consent agenda for a second and final reading, and if approved, it will go into effect as planned.

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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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