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Lawrence City Commission narrowly adopts prohibition on single

Aug 09, 2023

The Lawrence City Commission voted 3-2 to implement a ban on distribution by most businesses of single-use plastic bags to their customers. Commissioners decided Tuesday to implement the ordinance March 1, 2024, and rejected a proposal to place a three-year sunset on the policy. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Lawrence City Commission’s livestream)

LAWRENCE — The Lawrence City Commission adopted an ordinance banning on March 1, 2024, use by most businesses of single-use plastic bags and to encourage consumers to rely on cloth or other reusable bags rather than one-and-done sacks polluting the environment or tossed by the millions into landfills.

The 3-2 decision Tuesday by the commission would apply the regulation to owners and operators of businesses providing customers with disposable plastic bags to carry merchandise, food and beverages and other goods. Ordinance No. 9996 included exemptions for plastic bags designed to prevent food contamination or to shield from the weather items such as clothing or newspapers.

The city’s definition of reusable bag, whether made of cloth, fiber, plastic or other materials, required it had to be designed for repeated application. If based on plastics, an acceptable reusable bag for commercial purposes must contain at least 40% recycled content and measure at least 4 mills in thickness.

Violators could face fines ranging from $100 to $500 per offense, but the current city budget didn’t include funding to hire an enforcement officer. Commissioners pushed back implementation originally set for Jan. 1, 2024, to allow a six-month introductory phase. Members of the commission declined to include a three-year sunset.

Nancy Muma, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Kansas and a member of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board, urged the commission to pass the prohibition on single-use plastic bags. She said plastics in the process of degrading into tiny particles routinely found their way into humans and contributed to higher risk of contracting cancer and lowering of fertility.

“Plastics are really durable, which is great. Except they don’t decompose,” she said. “They break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Those tiny microplastics and nanoplastics are really abundant in the air, our water and our food. We can measure it in our blood, in our bodies and the placentas of newborn babies. That’s pretty scary, because we know this stuff is toxic.”

Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said manufacturers of single-use bags were opposed to bans of the type embraced by the Lawrence City Commission.

“As families and small businesses struggle to keep up with staggering inflation and a shaky economy, now is the wrong time to saddle them with higher costs at the checkout counter,” Taylor said. “The city commission should reconsider their ban on American-made, reusable and recyclable plastic bags that would impose unworkable costs on retailers and shoppers while promoting products that are more expensive and carry worse environmental impacts.”

Mayor Lisa Larsen broke the commission’s 2-2 tie that stalled action on the ordinance in June during a meeting Larsen didn’t attend. Commissioners Bart Littlejohn and Courtney Shipley formed the majority with Larsen. Commissioners Brad Finkeldei and Amber Sellers opposed it.

“Could we possibly add a sunset to this ordinance?” Sellers said. “I would be apropos with maybe a three-year sunset.”

Larsen said she supported the ordinance, tweaked to delay implementation until March, but not a sunset that could kill the regulation after a few years unless the commission acted to renew it.

Shipley, who voted for the restriction on single-use plastic bags, compared the plastic-bag debate to consternation among individuals and businesses owners in Lawrence a decade ago when the commission passed a ban on indoor smoking in public spaces.

“A lot of people, including some commissioners, thought if we ban cigarettes in restaurants and bars the sky will fall. Small businesses would die,” Shipley said. “I’ve spoken to some of those commissioners and, indeed, they recognize the sky did not fall. We all enjoy restaurants and bars a lot better because we do not smoke inside them.”

In 2010, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, signed into law a statewide ban on smoking in public buildings and indoor places of employment.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed in 2022 a bill that would have prevented cities and counties from banning, limiting or taxing plastic bags, straws and food containers. The governor said she opposed the restraint because it undermined authority of local government.

A proposal to place in state statute a prohibition on adoption by cities or counties of limits on single-use plastics was endorsed by the Kansas Chamber in the 2023 legislative session, but a bill blocking local governments from regulating single-use plastic failed in the Kansas Senate.

Text of the Lawrence ordinance says residents of the city used and discarded an estimated 29 million to 36 million single-use disposable plastic bags annually. The ordinance said the operational, environmental and social cost to the city of single-use disposable plastic bags was estimated to be 11 cents to 20 cents per bag.

It says manufacturing of the bags had “significant global environmental consequences” and discarded plastic bags infected the landscape and waterways in such volume they were ingested by animals with potentially lethal results.

“We’re heartened this is coming to some fruition,” said Thad Holcombe, who is part of faith-based Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability. “The addiction of convenience is something I struggle with. Certainly, that is the issue with plastic bags.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the votes of two commissioners. Members supporting the policy were Lisa Larsen, Courtney Shipley and Bart Littlejohn. Those opposed were Amber Sellers and Brad Finkeldei.)

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector August 9, 2023

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Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.