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Duluth approves plastic bag fee

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Beach and a plastic bag
A plastic bad along Park Point on Lake Superior in Duluth.
Courtesy of Shawna MullenEardley

Three days after the Minneapolis City Council passed the state’s first fee on disposable bags, the Duluth council followed suit Monday by approving a plan to require retailers to charge customers 5 cents for every disposable plastic bag they take. 

Supporters of the ordinance, who have advocated for action on plastic bags in Duluth for more than three years, packed the council chambers to voice support for the measure and to express frustration at the length of time it’s taken the city to act.

They called it a small, symbolic, but important step in encouraging Duluth shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, which they argue will help to reduce the number of plastic bags that clog storm drains and pollute Lake Superior.

“This isn’t rocket science. If half the population of Duluth uses one less bag per week, that would be 160,000 less bags per month, and almost 2 million less per year. Duluth is late in taking the action that hundreds of cities are already doing,” said Gay Trachsel of Duluth, one of more than a dozen people who spoke to the council in favor of the measure.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle, we’ve heard this for years,” said Linda Herron, also of Duluth. “Unfortunately we’ve focused mostly on the last piece, recycle, and not very much on the first two, reduce and reuse.”

Charging a small fee on plastic bags, she and others said, would help shift Duluth toward a culture of reuse, and at the same time keep plastic out of area streams and Lake Superior.

The fee, said council member Em Westerlund, who introduced the ordinance, is intended to motivate customers to make a different choice. “The idea is to annoy you just enough that maybe you will remember your bags next time. It takes effort to change habits, and our reliance on the use of single use plastic bags is a bad habit.”

After more than an hour of public comment and discussion among council members, councilors voted 6-2 in favor of the ordinance.

Council member Renee Van Nett said many of her constituents live in poverty in an area that’s considered a food desert, without close access to fresh and healthy food.

The fee does not apply to customers who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and similar benefits. But some people argued the ordinance will cause complications at the check-out line, and could stigmatize low-income people who don’t have to pay for the bags.

While in the end the proposal received strong support from the Duluth City council, council member Arik Forsman said he voted against it because he said he heard decidedly mixed opinions of the proposal from city residents.

"I think there's a general consensus in the community that we should do something about plastics, and that we can do things locally,” Forsman said. “But it is clear to me that there is deep division within Duluth about whether this bag fee is the right something."

Municipal action against plastic bags in Minnesota initially took the form of bag bans. But after Minneapolis passed a bag ban in 2016, the state legislature passed a so-called “preemption” bill that banned cities from banning bags.

But that law does not include bag fees. Researchers nationwide have subsequently concluded that fees work better than bans at reducing plastic pollution, because bans have an unintended consequence of increasing the purchase of different kinds of plastic bags.

The Duluth law goes into effect in April. Retailers in Minneapolis will begin collecting the fee in January.