City Council Supports County’s Proposed Fee On Plastic Bags

Lakewood City Council formally supports a county-wide fee on plastic shopping bags, which Cuyahoga County Council has been considering since late last year.

Council members Tristan Rader (At-large) and Sam O’Leary (Ward 2) introduced a resolution in favor of the county proposal, at the February 5 City Council meeting. Council members approved the resolution by a 6-1 vote.

The vote “strongly encourages the honorable council of Cuyahoga County to adopt the ordinance O2017-0006, a pollution-control measure which creates a 10¢ bag fee charged for disposable bags at retailers,” said Rader.

The resolution was covered by local media, and spurred a variety of questions at the meeting and in the community. One station’s coverage may have created a false impression that Lakewood plans its own plastic bag fee; in reality council’s vote was a nonbinding resolution in support of action at the county government level.

O’Leary noted that the county’s proposal itself remains up for debate, and that “it is likely that this iteration of the legislation will have to change” in some way to win a majority on County Council. Rader says that he and O’Leary introduced the resolution in part to encourage County Council, where legislation introduced by members Sunny Simon and Lakewood’s representative Dale Miller has been stalled for several weeks.

The proposal’s general outlines, however, are: a county-wide plastic shopping bag fee of 10¢, with the proceeds mostly funding retailers’ expenses for participation, environmental cleanup efforts, and a program to promote and distribute free reusable shopping bags. Smaller stores and people on public assistance would be exempt from the fee, as would plastic bags for meat and other items where food safety is a concern.

Advocates of the proposal describe it as mainly a means to promote a cultural shift toward reusable bags, through free bags and a promotional effort funded by the fee. They point toward similar efforts by other regional governments, and some entire countries, which have produced a substantial decrease in plastic bag use.

Nonetheless bag fees and bans have proved controversial, particularly in the United States. An industry-funded campaign called the “Progressive Bag Alliance” has lobbied fiercely against them.

Lakewood City Council member David Anderson (Ward 1) voted against the resolution, after questioning the county proposal on various points. Anderson suggested that the fee could create problems for cities which collect recycling using bags, instead of carts or bins.

Environmentalists themselves have had mixed reactions to bag-reduction measures, as well.

The recycling rate for plastic shopping bags is low, and discarded bags indisputably contribute to plastic contamination in waterways and the food chain. Rader pointed to this issue in his comments. “This is just something that’s very important to me and I think it’s… crucial to our environment,” he said. “Lakewood particularly has 3½ miles of coastline if I’m not mistaken, and we also have about a mile of river line. So protecting these resources is really incumbent upon us.”

But experts have warned that reducing bag waste could worsen other environmental problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, depending on what takes disposable bags’ place. Producing and distributing cotton canvass bags, in particular, appears to be much more environmentally damaging than using durable plastic bags. (Cuyahoga County’s Director of Sustainability Mike Foley says that the county has not evaluated specific options for free reusable bags, yet, but that he is aware of these issues.)

Most experts’ opinion is that durability and extended use are the keys to minimizing the shopping bag’s impact, and studies suggest that reusable bags are eventually more ecologically friendly on all counts as long as they are actually reused, over a number of years.

Meanwhile, many voices also note that shopping bags are ultimately just a small piece of the challenges of plastic waste and consumerism. Bob Lilienfeld, editor of the Use Less Stuff report, has said that the total impact of all packaging—bags, wrappers, bottles—accounts for only 10% of a typical shopping trip’s environmental impact.

Some forms of environmental impact are easier to quantify than others, however, and O’Leary suggested that a tidier environment has some value in addition to impacts on public health or climate.

“We know, as many council members do, a common complaint in Lakewood front yards is that there’s some new plastic bag adorning the azaleas that was not originally intended to be planted there. …this is an issue that a lot of people in our community feel passionate about both from the environmental standpoint, strictly speaking, and also the aesthetic impacts that these bags can generate for our neighborhoods that abut commercial districts.”

Matt Kuhns

Matt Kuhns is a freelance graphic designer, and occasional author.

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Volume 14, Issue 4, Posted 12:12 PM, 02.20.2018