City Council may ban most plastic grocery bags

The proposal would fine stores for using single-use plastic bags.

“Paper or plastic?” might soon be an antiquated question in Columbia.

An ordinance being considered by City Council would fine grocery and convenience stores $500 a day if they provide single-use plastic bags for customers to carry purchases in, according to the Environment and Energy Commission’s report. The aim is to lessen the environmental impact of the plastic bags.

City Council decided at its Jan. 20 meeting it would discuss the ordinance further at the Feb. 16 meeting.

The ordinance would take effect six months after adoption, according to the EEC report.

Plastic bags would still be provided for sanitary uses, such as in meat and produce sections and for restaurant takeout. The ordinance would also require 10 cent fees for each recyclable paper bag provided, except from customers on food assistance programs.

The Sierra Club originally proposed the ordinance, EEC member Esther Stroh said. The EEC reviewed the proposal for the City Council, and after research, proposed it in its current form to fit Columbia.

Mayor Bob McDavid said he does not support the ordinance, and that while he appreciates the amount of work that went into the report, an ordinance is intrusive and should be put on a ballot.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said at the meeting that he wanted to know more about the potential to recycle plastic bags but that he wanted options “with teeth.”

“Plastic bags create a significant problem in Columbia and the ordinance seems to address it without a large inconvenience,” Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said in an email.

Some local retailers recycle plastic bags, but Columbia’s curbside recycling program does not accept plastic bags, Waste Minimization Supervisor Layli Terrill said.

Terrill said that when people mistakenly send plastic bags to the recycling facility, their sorters have to spend time picking them out and throwing them away.

Sometimes plastic bags jam the machinery at the recycling facility, Stroh said.

The plastic bags themselves are not necessarily harmful to health, but the bags break down outdoors, Stroh said. In streams, the broken-down particles absorb toxins such as Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, and toxicity increases as the particles move up the food chain to humans.

Plastic bags also clog creeks and sewers, which sometimes causes flooding, Stroh said.

Stroh compared the ordinance to past changes including seat belt laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Those laws prohibited certain choices to promote health and the environment, but now people do not have a problem with them, she said.

Sierra Club member Jan Dye spoke at the City Council meeting, saying retailers had not given much input to the issue. The additional customer fees could mean revenue for them, she said.

People don’t understand why the restriction is being proposed, Stroh said. The EEC recommended that the city offer outreach to citizens if the ordinance passes.

Members of the public participated in a public forum Feb. 3. Stroh said 15 people spoke in favor of the ordinance and 11 against.

“I think Columbia could be ahead of the curve or Columbia could go kicking and screaming into the future,” Stroh said.

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