In 2017, high school student Sophie Williams stood in front of the Duluth City Council, imploring members to ban plastic bags in the city. She said she was tired of seeing them in creeks and in Lake Superior.
The council told Williams and others to conduct more outreach and round up additional support in the community.
Now a high school senior, Williams addressed many of those same council members again last month.
“Two-and-a-half years later, I still see plastic bags tumbling down the streets, I still see plastic bags caught in trees, and I still find plastic bags in Lake Superior,” she said.
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Williams is part of a campaign called “Bag It, Duluth,” which for more than three years has advocated for restrictions on plastic bags at stores and restaurants in the city.
Over the past two years, the group gathered more than 2,000 signatures from individuals and businesses who support its efforts. The signatures are on a scroll of paper that extends more than 60 feet long, said campaign director Jamie Harvie.
A similar effort has played out in Minneapolis. In 2016, the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. But a day before the ordinance was scheduled to take effect, state lawmakers passed a measure that banned cities from banning plastic bags.
That “set us back for a couple of months. It sort of deflated our energy," said Bag It, Duluth’s Harvie.
But now, advocates in both cities are back, this time with proposals to place fees on bags, which is not restricted by state law.
Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon introduced the measure there. He said his constituents are clamoring for it.
“People have watched other countries and states and cities pass regulations about plastic. They see stories about damage that plastic is doing to the environment. And they’re also seeing litter in their neighborhoods,” Gordon said.
The efforts in Duluth and Minneapolis are part of a much broader movement nationwide to reduce the use of plastic bags.
“There are seven states that have adopted statewide plastic bag laws, and close to 500 local laws” that place bans or taxes or fees on disposable bags, said Jennie Romer, who’s been tracking legislation with the California-based Surfrider Foundation for over a decade.
At the same time, more than a dozen states have responded with preemption bills like Minnesota’s, which prevent local governments from restricting the use of disposable bags.
State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, one of the champions of that effort in the Minnesota Legislature, called it a message to local governments to focus on more important issues, “as opposed to what is at best a symbolic environmental issue,” he said. “Apparently they didn’t get the message.”
Fees over bans
While the first efforts in Minneapolis and Duluth focused on banning plastic bags, recently environmental groups and other activists have begun to push for fees or taxes instead of outright bans — and recent studies suggest it might be a more effective move.
“Fees are really the most effective mechanism,” said Romer. “Fees make customers stop and think whether they need a bag at the register. [That’s when] we really see a huge reduction in plastic bag use.”
Rebecca Taylor, an economist at the University of Sydney in Australia, has studied the effectiveness of bag bans versus bag fees. She found that both policies lead to a reduction in single-use plastic bags.
"But bag bans had this unintended consequence of increasing the use of paper bags, as well as other types of thicker plastic bags,” she said.
That's because people still wanted plastic bags for things like lining a wastebasket, or picking up after their dogs. So, they bought small garbage bags instead — a lot of them.
"When we look at the total amount of plastic, about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated in the form of banning grocery bags, comes back in the form of garbage bags," she said.
On the other hand, when consumers face a bag fee instead of an outright ban, they can pay for the limited amount of bags they want — and then reuse them in wastebaskets and for animal waste, instead of having to buy small garbage bags.
Other research has shown that fees on disposable bags are also much more effective than the refunds or credits that some retailers give to shoppers who bring in their own bags.
New York University behavioral economist Tatiana Homonoff compared the effectiveness of those credits against the effectiveness of bag fees, before and after a fee went into effect in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.
"These 5-cent taxes on paper and plastic bags led to very large drops in disposable bag use, however a 5-cent bonus for reusable bag use had a negligible effect on behavior," she said.
In other words: “We respond a lot more to the stick than we do to the carrot,” she said.
In her research, Homonoff saw about a 40 percent drop in the use of disposable bags, within a month after a fee was implemented. She was surprised that a relatively small fee in what is a fairly wealthy area could lead to such dramatic changes in behavior.
“This suggests there’s a lot of people who are just on the margin of using a reusable bag instead of a disposable bag,” she said. “So creating a policy that nudges them in that direction, with a very small incentive, has big effects on their consumption of these types of bags.”
Paper or plastic?
The Minneapolis ordinance would place a nickel fee on both paper and plastic disposable bags.
That’s what was proposed in Duluth’s original fee ordinance, as well. But the council amended the ordinance this week to apply only to plastic bags.
“The primary focus of the community has been on the issue of plastic contamination, particularly of our water supply, and particularly for our lake,” explained council member Joel Sipress, who supported the amendment. “At this point in time I think there is some value in keeping that focus on that issue.”
The change frustrated people who’d been working to get the fee passed. They argue that excluding paper bags from the fee defeats the point of encouraging a culture of reuse.
Research suggests that excluding paper bags from the fee will lead to a sharp rise in the use of paper bags.
“If close substitutes are left unregulated, people are going to switch to using those unregulated bags instead,” said Homonoff.
“That’s incredibly concerning,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “There’s a dramatic cost difference between the two.”
Pfuhl, who doesn’t support bans or fees on bags, said plastic bags cost retailers about a penny or two. Paper bags can cost as much as 10 cents apiece.
“Charging a nickel on the plastic doesn’t offset an increase in use on the paper. I think that needs to be vetted a little bit more,” she said. “I know it does.”
The Minnesota Retailers Association, which also opposes single-use bag fees, supports giving customers a choice in checkout lanes, and educating them about more sustainable bag options.
The Duluth City Council could vote on its ordinance as early as Nov. 12, during its next meeting.
The Minneapolis council will hold a public hearing on the issue Nov. 18. A vote could come just a few days after.