Government, Retail, and Sustainability

State moves to ban bag bans

Plastic bags are an environmental issue, but lawmakers say the measure would help businesses.

May 27, 2016
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the United States uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, most of which end up either in landfills or as roadside trash. ©Thinkstock.com

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) It could soon be against the law in Michigan for local governments to enact a ban on plastic bags.

Earlier this month, the Michigan Senate voted 25-12 on SB 853, which would ban plastic bag bans and fees imposed by local communities in the state.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, introduced the bill, arguing it would provide consistency for businesses by preventing a patchwork of laws for them to navigate.

At least 200 communities across the country and the entire state of Hawaii have enacted either a ban on plastic bags or a fee tied to their use. The primary reason has to do with preventing the bags from polluting the environment — and particularly the oceans, where many plastic bags end up.

It’s been reported the United States uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 5 percent of those are recycled. The other 95 percent end up in landfills or as pollution in the environment, where each bag can take up to 1,000 years to break down.

In Michigan, at least two counties, Muskegon and Washtenaw, had been considering plastic bag bans this year.

“It was about a year ago that we started looking at the issue,” said Terry Sabo, chairman of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners.

Sabo said he’d noticed a lot of plastic bags stuck in trees and littering roadways in Muskegon and across the state, and he wondered if there was a way to eliminate the problem.

Around that time, the Muskegon Department of Public Works was considering hiring an individual — at a salary of $25,000 per year — to pick up trash that was escaping from its landfill into the surrounding environment.

“According to our director, 90 percent of the trash flying around out there was plastic bags,” Sabo said. “We are using taxpayer money to pick up plastic bags — bags that are harmful to the environment and unsightly and never go away.”

The board instructed Sara Damm, sustainability coordinator for Muskegon County, to investigate the issue and research possible options for reducing or eliminating the bags. Through her research, Damm said she found plastic bags aren’t only a challenge for landfill management. They also are known to cause problems in recycling facilities.

“Many of our residents have curbside recycling that goes to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, and based on many discussions with the facility managers, plastic bags are a huge impediment to the efficiency of their machinery and costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars in operation and maintenance costs to manage, because the bags get tangled in their very expensive sorting equipment,” Damm said. “Not to mention shutting down their line every 45 minutes to send a worker in to physically cut all the bags out. It's a very dangerous job, and it holds up production and is very expensive.”

As a result of those findings, Damm said a plastic bag ban was presented as an option.

“The ban was brought up to keep the problem from getting worse,” but as the Senate gets more involved, it seems to be something that will no longer be allowed at the local level, unfortunately.”

When the Senate took its vote this month, Muskegon was still in the process of considering whether to move forward on the issue.

“There never has been any formal action on the county board’s part, but we were looking into the issue to see what our options were and what the community thought about it,” Sabo said.

He noted the county board has not taken a formal position on the Senate bill but that, personally, he disagrees with it, saying local communities should make this decision for themselves.

Kristen Wieland, community relations coordinator at the Kent County Department of Public Works, said Kent County also has not taken a position on the Senate bill. She agreed the bags present challenges environmentally and with recycling facility equipment.

“We have litter fences to catch litter blowing out of the landfill, and plastic bags are one of the most common things we find on those litter screens,” Wieland said. “So I know a lot of them are still ending up at the landfill.”

She said the bags also are an issue at the recycling facility, which sorted more than 225 tons of bags from residential recycling in 2015.

“It is a maintenance issue because they get wrapped around our paper screens,” she said.

The bags also don’t present a lot of value as a commodity.

“After we’ve sorted them out and put them into bales, they are not always the cleanest, and so they’re not worth very much,” she said. “They’ve touched a lot of stuff and become contaminated, so they don’t have as much value. We gave our last load away for no payment.”

Wieland said rather than a ban, she thinks personal decision-making could have the most impact.

“We believe a better infrastructure could be developed to handle the bags,” she said.

She noted one option is using reusable bags, and also declining a plastic bag when you can easily carry a purchase without one.

She said rather than putting plastic bags in curbside recycling, people should consider returning them to recycling bins at the stores where they came from.

“It’s a better option to take them back to the grocery stores or the stores where they accept them — and most stores do — such as Target and Meijer,” she said. “They still get recycled, but they stay a lot cleaner and, therefore, have more value.”

Wieland said the message Kent County Department of Public Works is trying to send is one of personal responsibility: Everyone needs to pitch in to divert waste from landfills and increase recycling and composting.

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