Retailers Want to Sack Minneapolis Councilman's Plan for 5-Cent Bag Fee

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A Minneapolis councilman is repackaging a proposal to place a 5-cent tax on plastic and paper bags used by retailers in the city as a way to cut down on waste and pollution.

But representatives of business groups oppose the idea of Minnesota cities pursuing such policies, saying they would add to retailers' burdens, place limits on consumer choices and create a complex patchwork of environmental rules.

City Councilman Cam Gordon, who is also a Minnesota Green Party member, said in his March newsletter that he would renew efforts to place such a tax on single-use plastic and paper bags. The council tabled a similar measure in 2017.

Minneapolis had adopted a "Bring Your Own Bag" ordinance in 2016 that would have banned the single-use plastic bags, but former Gov. Mark Dayton later signed state legislation that pre-empted cities from banning the bags.

The city is also carrying out an online survey to gauge residents' sentiments about a 5-cent bag tax.

Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, said imposing a tax at checkout for what had been a complimentary service would create problems due to some of the provisions of the proposal. People who receive benefits through food assistance programs would be exempt from the tax, and it would not apply to many other types of bags, such as those used to wrap flowers.

"There are some complexities that fall on the cashier," she said.

Another problem is that imposing a bag fee in a city such as Minneapolis could distort shoppers' buying habits if some city residents opt to avoid the fee by purchasing their groceries in a neighboring suburb, according to Pfuhl.

"The greatest concern is when cities start doing it," she said.

Customers should have the choice to evaluate the environmental impacts of reusable bags, paper bags and plastic bags when they buy their goods, according to Pfuhl.

"From the grocers' perspective, we don't defend one over the other," she said.

About 90 percent of grocers provide in-store recycling opportunities for customers, and grocers also accept plastic bags that originate from other businesses, Pfuhl said.

"We are one of the innovators in terms of recycling," she said. "... We are definitely stewards of the environment."

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents plastic bag manufacturers, has also opposed bag fees and bans, arguing that they can lead to unintended consequences. That can happen when bag bans lead consumers to purchase heavier plastic bags for trash and other uses, leading to an increase rather than a decrease in plastic waste.

For canvas tote bags to have a lower environmental impact than plastic bags, they would need to be reused more than 130 times, according to the alliance.

Samantha Pree-Stinson, the Minnesota Green Party's co-chair, said such arguments are problematic because they often don't come with scientific data. And cities that have imposed bag bans and fees have seen reductions in plastic bag pollution, Pree-Stinson said.

The state, meanwhile, has been heavy-handed in the restrictions it places on local governments, she said.

"What we've seen is the state legislature pre-empting localities from being able to govern for their people," Pree-Stinson said.

That could change this year because Rep. Steve Elkins, D-Bloomington, has sponsored legislation that would overturn the state law prohibiting local governments from enacting retailer bag bans. Backers of local bag ban ordinances say the plastic bags gum up recycling machinery and generate a massive amount of waste.

Elkins' bill passed the House Subcommittee on Local Government in March.

The bag issue also has the potential to help bridge divisions between urban and rural areas around the state, according to Pree-Stinson. Hemp farmers could supply the materials to make reusable bags for shoppers, and state funding of such a project could make the bags available to shoppers at no cost, she said.

Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, said his group shares the goal of reducing waste and increasing recycling, but retailers would take a path different from Gordon's proposal.

"We generally don't favor fees or bans when it comes to bags," Nustad said. "... If government is going to step into that realm, we prefer an education program."

The association wants consumers to have the opportunity to decide for themselves which bag option is best, rather than be handed a mandate to use one product or another, he said.

And proposals to force retailers' hands can make added work for business owners, according to Nustad.

"It's safe to say that retailers in Minnesota feel a fairly high burden of regulation," he said.