Lawrence’s plastic bag ban goes into effect Friday; here’s what you should know

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The City of Lawrence ordinance banning single-use plastic bags goes into effect Friday, March 1.

Here’s what you should know. 

Why is this happening? 

Lawrence city commissioners in August 2023 approved an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags citywide.

The ban, initially prompted by a class of environmentally conscious fourth graders who are now high school sophomores, was under discussion for years before commissioners approved Ordinance 9996.

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The ordinance 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 degrading, and animal deaths from eating the bags, among other concerns. City staff members have also said the bags are difficult to recycle and that they contaminate the materials that the city can process, recycle and compost.

The city estimates that Lawrence residents use and discard more than 29 million single-use plastic bags per year.

What kind of bags are banned, and what kinds can I use? 

The ordinance bans establishments from giving customers plastic bags that are less than 4 mils in thickness — that’s about as thick as a piece of paper. The ban also applies to paper bags that do not contain at least 40% post-consumer recycled content.

Reusable bags (or totes) made of cloth are OK. So are reusable plastic bags that are at least 4 mils in thickness, contain at least 40% post-consumer recycled material and are labeled with the post-consumer recycled content percentage, the mil thickness, and the word “reusable” on the bag.

The ordinance also includes a number of exemptions for product-specific bags. That means things such as produce bags and bags to prevent cross-contamination of groceries; garment bags, such as those used for dry cleaning; bags to bring home your new pet fish and more are still OK.

This is one example of the kinds of bags that are banned under the ordinance. (Original photo by Christopher Vega on Unsplash)

Will I get in trouble for using plastic bags?

Unless you’re the owner of a business establishment that is continuing to use the bags for customers’ goods, no, you won’t.

Residents don’t need to get rid of bags they already have — and pet owners can still use the bags to pick up after their pets, for instance. 

Although the approved version 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,” the fines for using single-use plastic bags only apply to establishments.

The city suggests that chain stores with locations outside of Lawrence ship remaining bag inventory to other locations, or consider donating remaining plastic bags to nonprofits that might make use of them. 

What about my school’s bake sale fundraiser, planned for the upcoming farmers market? 

Such a fundraiser would meet the criteria for multiple other exemptions to the ordinance — meaning you could still use single-use plastic bags.

Farmers markets are exempt from the ban. Religious institutions, charitable organizations, schools and not-for-profits are also exempt from the ordinance “except when engaged in the commercial sale or distribution of perishable or non-perishable items to consumers.” 

As another example, Lawrence City Commissioner Brad Finkeldei asked city staff members during discussion of the ordinance whether kindergarten teachers could send students’ art projects home with them inside single-use plastic bags. Yes, the final version of the ordinance will allow for that. 

But I’m supposed to remember to bring reusable bags every time I go to the grocery store? 

That’s the idea, according to the city: “The City strongly encourages consumers to use reusable bags instead of single-use disposable bags. Establishments are welcome to provide reusable bags to consumers for free, for a cost or for a deposit.”

The city suggests tips such as leaving yourself a sticky note somewhere that you’ll see it, or creating smart location-based reminders on your cellphone to go off as you approach the places you shop. 

People who drive their own vehicles to shop can also put items back in their cart to unload straight into their vehicles, or into bags left in their vehicles, the city suggests.

What if I need reusable bags? 

There will be at least one city-hosted opportunity for folks who need reusable bags to get some at no cost.

The City of Lawrence invites all community members to a Bag Bash, set for 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vermont St. The celebration will include the city’s community partners in sustainability talking about what they’re up to, plus some activities.

There will be a bag donations drive and giveaway, so those who have bags they don’t need can bring them to share with those who do. The city asks that folks who have extra clean and gently used reusable bags bring them to the event.

And there will be tote bag decorating, with “environmentally friendly decorations to make your bag stand out. It’s hard to forget your tote when it’s your favorite and most stylish accessory,” Maureen Brady, a spokesperson for the city, said via email.

How will the ordinance be enforced? 

“We’ll handle the enforcement the way we do other City codes,” Brady said.

It is a municipal offense for businesses to keep providing customers single-use plastic bags. The person who owns, manages, operates or otherwise controls an establishment may face maximum fines of $100, $200 and $500 if convicted of their first, second and third violations, respectively. 

Community members can contact the city’s code enforcement team at 785-832-7700 to report ordinance violations, Brady said. Violations can also be reported online

What has the city heard from community members and businesses about the bag ban? 

“We’ve heard really encouraging comments from our community members and are pleased by the quick adaptation to this change,” Brady said. “Some businesses stopped using single-use disposable bags even before this Ordinance was passed, so many members of our community have been introduced to this concept already.”

“From businesses, we’ve received some questions looking for clarification on what the law affects vs. what is still allowed,” she said. “So those have opened up some good conversations between our groups so that there is less confusion as we approach March 1.”

The city’s FAQ section for businesses, at plasticfreelawrence.org/businesses, has more details. 

“We’re excited by this ordinance and our community’s ability to improve the long-term health of our natural environment by switching to reusable bags!” Brady said. “This work matters for our commitment to environmental sustainability and we want to help make the change as easy as we can for our community.”

Is the Kansas Legislature going to pass a law that would interfere with this ordinance? 

It’s possible, though the proposed law might not be constitutional.

House Bill 2446 is intended to prohibit cities and counties from regulating plastic and other containers “designed for the consumption, transportation or protection of merchandise, food or beverages.” Legislators had the bill on their agenda for a vote last week and chose to skip over it; however, they retained it on the calendar, so they could still vote on it later in this session. 

Some Lawrence community members spoke against the bill at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs last month. Several, including Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens, submitted written testimony against the bill. Owens wrote that the bill would erode the home rule authority that Kansas cities have under the state constitution. A retired judge who spoke at the hearing said the same, Kansas Reflector reported. 

What if I still have questions? 

The city’s website, plasticfreelawrence.org, has a page of FAQs, and a form where you can submit questions you’d like to see answered. 

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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’s plastic bag ban goes into effect Friday; here’s what you should know

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