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Issues Of The Environment: Prepping For Washtenaw County's Eco-Fee For Carryout Bags

Plastic Bags
Arbel Egger-Nadan

Washtenaw County's "eco-fee" for using plastic or paper bags from retail grocery stores is scheduled to go into effect on Earth Day in 2017. In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to Washtenaw County solid waste specialist Noelle Bowman about the new ordinance and whether state lawmakers will actually allow for its implementation. 


    *   On June 1, 2016, Washtenaw County adopted Michigan’s very first carryout bag policy, a 10-cent eco-fee for each disposable plastic or paper bag received from a retail grocery store. It is set to take effect on Earth Day of next year, April22nd, 2017.  This move gained national recognition regarding the power of the state to limit local governments, as Michigan Senate Bill 853 (which prohibits local governments from passing such ordinances) cleared the Senate in May 10 and awaits approval from the House.

    *   The WashtenawCounty Board of Commissionerscame to believe the bags create a solid waste problem after uncovering the fact that the plastic bags are jamming equipment at the local recycling facility.  The county spends more than $200,000 per year addressing malfunctions related to plastic bags.  Clearing the clogged recycling gear also poses a significant safety risk for workers and halts the recycling process several times each day.

Q and A with Noelle Bowman, Washtenaw County Solid Waste Specialist 

Did Washtenaw County adopt a Bag Ban?

No! The policy does not call for a BAN on any bags.  Both the plastic and paper bags will still be available to customers at check-out, but a $0.10 eco-fee will be assessed for each bag provided to customers.

Why did the County go with a Bag Fee, and not a Bag Ban?

One thing that people value very much is freedom of choice.  The County’s bag FEE policy still gives customers freedom to choose plastic bags at check-out if they want the plastic bags.  The difference is the customer pays for the cost of end-of-life management at the front end (at check-out) instead of that cost being pushed down to the back-end by tax dollars.

For people in Washtenaw County who havecurbside collection services, which about 35% of municipalities in Washtenaw do, these people are ALREADY PAYING for bag management costs. Whether they realize it or not, they are paying for it.  What the eco-fee does is it SHIFTS that cost burden closer to the front end of the life-cycle with the customer who has a choice to bring their own bag or take one provided by the store, rather than that cost being pushed to the back-end of its lifecycle at the recycling facilities, who are forced to pay for management costs using taxpayer dollars.

According to the nation’s foremost bag attorney, communities with fee-based bag policies are less prone to litigation than communities that call for a “ban.”

Is the Eco-fee a tax?

No!  Customers can bring their own bags to the grocery and avoid any costs.

Does the policy regulate the USE of plastic bags?

No!  The policy does not regulate the USE of plastic bags.  The policy regulates the distribution of disposable carryout bags.  People can still use plastic bags, and, in fact, people are able to bring with them to the store as many plastic bags as they want.  The eco-fee only applies when the retailer provides a customer with a new bag.

Why does the eco-fee extend to paper bags too?  Why not just the plastic bags?

From a policy standpoint, we need to look at indirect long-term consequences.  The policy seeks to solve the plastic bag problem, and we use the waste and environmental impact as reasoning for plastic bags.  Similarly, we need to consider the same factors for the most common alternative: paper bags.  Yes, it's easier for residents to properly dispose of paper bag waste (can be recycled or composted curbside).  But when we look at environmental impact, paper bags are much more resource-intensive to manufacture compared to plastic, and have 5-7x the mass and weight per bag, and therefore add 5-7x more tonnage to the waste stream for municipalities to manage.  They in turn create 5-7x greater greenhouse gas emissions.  One paper bag must be used 3-4x per every single-use plastic bag for and equivalent environmental impact.  So, policy-makers craft these types of ordinances in such a way to incentivize behavior.  And the behavior that yields the overall minimal environmental impact is one that encourages customers to bring their own bags.

Will produce, trash bags and other types of bags be affected?

No!  Only applies to the carryout bags at check-out, intended to carry purchased food products from store to car for purpose of later consumption.  Produce bags, bulk bags, bags to protect soups and liquids are ALL excluded from the policy.  These are not the bags that are causing damage to our recycling facilities or environment.

What stores will be affected by the policy?  Restaurants?  Department Stores?

The policy only affects “Retail Grocery” stores, not restaurants, fast food, department stores, or other types of stores.  The reasoning here is that grocery stores are the major generators of the plastic bag waste because people shop there for food far more frequently.  If we consider an average person who goes to the grocery store 1-3x/week and uses 3-6 grocery bags per visit, that adds up, versus trips to other types of stores are far more infrequent.  The grocery stores are the lowest hanging fruit.

What will the funds from eco-fees be used for?

Education, outreach, infrastructure building, product stewardship programs for material management.  The ordinance is designed to be revenue neutral and not intended to cover any other expenses not related to the bags.

How much money will the ordinance generate?

There is no way to anticipate that as that would seek to predict human behavior.  An ideally executed policy would generate $0, because that would indicate that people have shifted 100% toward bringing their reusable bags and don’t take any from the store.  We hope to eventually generate $0 through this policy, but, in the meantime, any funds generated go directly toward material management for the bags.

When does it become effective?

Earth Day, April 22nd 2017 (Unless the state bans the enactment of such policies before then).

What are the effects on low income communities?  Are there any exemptions to the Eco Fee?

None.  Yes, there are exemptions for any customer receiving government funded assistance programs.

What will the enforcement look like?

Civil Infraction

Will the County work directly with affected retailers?

Yes.  We want to ensure smooth transition and plan to facilitate public/stakeholder engagement in coming months leading up to the effective date.

Will the County distribute reusable bags to residents?

Yes, that will be a part of the program development in transition into the bag policy.

Are there any effects on retailers in similar communities that have passed bag ordinances?

Yes.  Mostly positive effects and very few negative effects.  Fewer bags consumed, less litter, a shift toward using reusable bags.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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