Plastic Bags

The Lawrence City Commission will be hearing a proposal for a 16-cent fee on plastic and paper bags at grocery store checkouts.

The Lawrence City Commission will soon be facing an environmentally-friendly proposal to charge 16 cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag used in grocery stores, except those necessary for bulk products or safety reasons such as fruits and vegetables, raw meat and seafood. 

According to the Single-Use Plastics Study and Policy Recommendations report from the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board, the 16-cent charge was agreed upon as a middle ground between different social-cost estimates conducted in the United States, which provided the numbers of 11 cents and 20 cents.

The report also explained the goal of the initiative, which is to show consumers the actual price and create a behavioral change, which will lead to less usage of plastic bags and lessen the environmental impact that bags can have. As it is now, consumers never see the cost of their bags and have the impression that they are free because retailers add the cost of bags to the price of their products. 

The cost of the bags is not just monetary, however. Plastic bags in Lawrence are a known issue and potentially harmful to local wildlife, according to the report. They infiltrate Clinton Lake and the Kansas River, cause problems for city recycling facilities, make water run-off less efficient and get stuck in trees and other vegetation.

The report estimated that a 16-cent charge would result in a 60% reduction of single-use shopping bags, which means saving approximately 17.82 million bags per year. The revenue raised is expected to be $1,900,800, with $950,000 each going to support environmental initiatives and low-income Lawrence residents.

When presented with the facts of the initiative, KU students Julie Jorgensen and Alex Williams agreed that the proposal should take effect.

Jorgensen, a junior journalism major from Cedar Falls, Iowa, is currently studying abroad in Denmark. After experiencing another country’s environmental policies, she said it’s time for Lawrence to “step up their game” when it comes to protecting the environment. 

Where Jorgensen is currently staying, an initiative similar to Lawrence’s is in place, and she has seen the positive impact that it can have on a community. 

“Every time I go and buy groceries now, I consciously think ‘let me grab my plastic bags’ because it’s more of a hassle to buy them again and just have them laying around than to have me go back,” Jorgensen said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

That said, Jorgensen believes a total ban on plastic bags would be unrealistic for Lawrence.

“I think there could be a point in time where that happens, but it’s going to take a long time before we can completely limit the use of plastic bags,” Jorgensen said. “Change isn’t overnight. Nothing is overnight, especially with environmental issues since we’re so deep in this hole of consumption … I think we need to work toward a goal like that but to make it more realistic for real people.”

Williams, a sophomore majoring in English from Kingman agrees and thinks that a charge would be beneficial because of the shocking amount of plastic that Lawrence uses annually.

"I think it's a great idea. I've been to other places that do the same thing," Williams said. "I think it really helps motivate people to actually think about how they are affecting the environment and to purchase reusable bags."

Williams also recounted the fact that many people store some of their plastic bags but don’t often reuse them. 

"Almost everyone I know had a plastic bag filled with more plastic bags in a closet or pantry. What were they for? They just piled up over time," Williams said. "We use those plastic bags for, what, five minutes? Just enough time to carry them from the grocery cart to the trunk, then from the trunk to the house. Then they are discarded into the infamous bag of bags or, more often, the ocean.” 

The City’s Sustainability Advisory Board approved the proposal, which means it will now be forwarded to the City Commission for further action.