Local Government

No plastic? Iowa City researching possible ban on plastic shopping bags

Fact-gathering mission aims to assess feasibility

Photo Illustration for story on possible ban on plastic bags in Iowa City. (from left) Paper, plastic and reusable grocery bags. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Photo Illustration for story on possible ban on plastic bags in Iowa City. (from left) Paper, plastic and reusable grocery bags. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Plastic bag bans already are in place in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Austin and Los Angeles.

Could Iowa City be next?

In the coming months, city and county officials are to help answer that question by conducting research on a possible ban aimed at keeping plastic bags out of the city’s landfill. Chris O’Brien, Iowa City’s director of transportation services said the study is to focus on possible fees for using plastic bags, educational opportunities and advanced recycling techniques.

It’s all part of the city’s Waste Minimizing Strategy, which also aims to curb the amount of cardboard and electronic devices in the landfill.

Iowa City Councilman Kingsley Botchway III says the study and possible plastic bag ban is a visible way for city leaders to signal citizens how they feel about being green.

“That’s a huge piece of it actually,” Botchway said. “I think that signals for folks that we’re serious about it.”

Waste reduction

Jen Jordan, Iowa City’s recycling coordinator, said the discussion on plastic bags is being driven by students and environmental groups.

According to city documents, plastic bags make up about 360 tons — or 0.3 percent — of what goes into Iowa City’s landfill each year. Although plastic bags can be recycled, they are not highly biodegradable, especially when compared to paper bags. Evidence of this is clear at the landfill, where plastic bags protrude from the earth, hang in plants and on fences and blow across the dirt on windy days.

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But it’s the plastic bags outside the landfill that are more concerning to folks like O’Brien, who says they are a major source of litter, especially on waterways, and can harm wildlife.

“It’s not something that’s just relegated to one part of the country or others. There might be different impacts at different locations,” he said.

Single-use plastic bags were introduced to U.S. stores in the late 1970s. Customers were not initially enthused, but retailers stuck with the bags because they cost much less than paper and took up less space.

Over the years, a battle has been waged over the popular question: Paper or plastic? A search of the internet brings up voices on both sides of the argument.

Proponents for paper say the bags are more easily biodegradable, are made with renewable resources and are more likely to be recycled. Those who advocate for plastic say the manufacturing process uses less energy and produces far less waste.

A third party advocates for reusable bags, which many stores now sell to customers. But even reusable bags have opponents who argue the bags are often not made in America, which means the financial and environmental cost to ship them here offsets any good they do. Others say the some bags contain harmful chemicals and can become easily contaminated once used.

Christopher Whitley, the Midwest spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said his agency does not conduct a lot of research regarding plastic and paper bags, but said for customers, it is “just as easy for someone to throw away a paper or plastic bag. From that standpoint, the two are equal.”

Whitley said the EPA recommends shoppers take reusable bags because it’s the best option for the environment.

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Curbing use

If Iowa City does pass a plastic bag ban of some kind, it would join the ranks of more than 150 U.S. cities and countries that ban or require fees to use plastic bags, according to reports.

In Boulder, Colorado, a 10-cent fee for plastic and paper bags was passed in 2012 in an attempt to curb use. At that time, city officials estimated residents used about 33 million plastic bags each year.

The city allows grocery stores to keep 4 cents of the fee to cover the cost of compliance with the ordinance. The city keeps the other 6 cents to provide services like education on plastic bags or giving away reusable bags.

Jamie Harkins, Boulder’s sustainability coordinator, said the fee was met with little resistance from residents and grocers and has helped decrease disposable bag use by 69 percent. The county’s recycling center has seen a reduction in plastic bag contamination, as well, she said.

“It’s been really successful so we’ll see what’s next,” Harkins said, noting there may be a push in the future to raise the bag fee to 20 cents.

Iowa City would be a pioneer in Iowa if some kind of plastic bag ban is put in place. According to Bag the Ban, an online database for plastic bag legislation, Iowa currently has no pending local or state legislation. Marshall County officials in 2008 passed a ban on plastic bags in all unincorporated land, but that only impacts one small store.

Many companies have also made changes in an effort to curtail use.

New Pioneer Food Co-op, a local and organic food provider with three locations in the Corridor, stopped offering plastic bags last August. Jenifer Angerer, marketing manager at the cooperative said the decision came after suggestions from customers and research regarding plastic bag recycling.

“People understood why we were doing it,” Angerer said. “This seemed to be a logical step to take and make a statement on.”

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Hy-Vee officials, in a written statement, said they, too, are taking steps to encourage the use of reusable bags by offering customers a 5-cent discount per reusable bag.

Both Hy-Vee and the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, of which Fareway is a member, said they encourage customers to recycle plastic bags and some stores have recycling bins. The association runs a Build with Bags program that grants money to those who build with products made using recycled plastic bags.

Michelle Hurd, president of the IGIA, said any type of steps to ban or enact fees for plastic bags ultimately hurts customers. She said her organization advocates for voluntary programs like recycling over mandatory steps.

“We’ve been trying to develop some proactive programs to help be a part of the solution,” she said.

Next steps

Over the years, plastic bags have become a staple in the lives of consumers, not just for lugging home groceries and other goods, but for the many ways people reuse them — lining trash cans, packing a lunch or even picking up after the dog.

Grace Milnamow, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student, said she doesn’t have a strong opinion on a potential ban. She reuses all of her plastic grocery bags as garbage or lunch bags but does often bring reusable bags to the store as well.

Michelle Galvin, 44, of Iowa City, said she also uses reusable bags, but also takes plastic from time to time because she, too, uses the bags around the house. She said she’d be happy to comply with a ban but may have to purchase some plastic bags for her home if that’s the case.

O’Brien said during the next few months his department is planning to look at other communities and what obstacles they faced implementing bans or fees on plastic bags. He said after the research is complete, Iowa City officials should have a much better idea on how to proceed.

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“They’re committed to addressing these, therefore we’re committed to addressing these as well,” he said.

Facts about plastic

Worldwide, 1 trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. The amount of energy required to make 12 plastic shopping bags could drive a car for a mile.

100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year, almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.

More than 150 U.S. cities and countries ban or require fees for plastic bags. More than 49 million Americans live in communities that have passed bans or fees.

Washington, D.C., was the first U.S. city to require food and alcohol retailers to charge customers 5 cents for each plastic or paper bag.

In 2013, Americans generated 33 million tons of plastic waste. Only 9 percent was recycled. Comparatively, 63 percent of the paper used by Americans was recycled that year.

Sources: Earth Policy Institute, Environmental Protection Agency

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