A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Proposed ordinance could transform how Columbia residents grocery shop

Published in the Columbia Business Times, Dec. 13, 2014 by Andrew Denney

Marshall Harding collects flyaway bags and other debris at the municipal landfill Monday in Columbia.
Because plastic shopping bags are so widespread, it may not occur to some younger shoppers that plastic bags have only been around since the 1970s, a relatively short amount of time considering how many centuries people have been bringing home purchases.

Mike Heimos, a stormwater educator for the city of Columbia, said he was working as a bag boy in a St. Louis-area Schnucks when the bags were first introduced to his store in the mid-1980s — a time when the supermarket closed on Sundays and employees cleaned out ashtrays affixed to shopping carts.

“I remember the pushback from customers,” Heimos said. “People liked paper.”

Heimos leads the Crawdads, Columbia’s stream team, which enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers each year to tromp not only through local streams, but through wooded areas and along roadways scouring areas for litter.

In 2013, Heimos said, the team recruited 621 volunteers who worked 43 cleanups and collected more than 4,400 pounds of litter from clean-up sites. While the total payload does include some larger items like spent tires, the three largest culprits are drink containers, cigarette butts and plastic bags.

Plastic shopping bags may have been the new thing when Heimos was a teenager, but that changed quickly. Plastic bags rose to ubiquity in supermarkets and shops across the globe, and it’s not hard to figure out why: they’re lightweight, durable and easy to carry.

A shopper returning home from a trip to the grocery store can easily hold several bags in one hand while fumbling for keys with the other. And after the groceries are unloaded, the bags can be reused to line trash cans or pick up pet waste.

Over the last several years communities worldwide have begun to see that the convenience of plastic bags comes with a cost: many of the estimated 500 bags that an average consumer uses each year end up in the landfill or in storm drains, waterways and, eventually, the ocean.

“They end up downstream and they end up entangling wildlife,” said Lawrence Lile, chairman of the city of Columbia’s Environment and Energy Commission, which the Columbia City Council has ordered to review a proposed ordinance to restrict the use of plastic bags in the city.

The draft ordinance currently under the commission’s consideration — which the Osage Group of the Sierra Club presented to the council — would prohibit grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies and farmers markets from providing plastic bags to customers. Plastic bags would also be prohibited from distribution at city-sponsored events.

Grocers would still be able to provide bags to prevent produce or cuts of meat from coming into contact with other foods or surfaces. Stores would also be able to offer paper bags but charge 10 cents each — revenue that grocers would be able to hang onto as long as they can furnish receipts to prove that they are charging customers for the bags.

Plastic shopping bags — or “T-shirt” bags — are made of high-density polyethylene, which is produced from oil and natural gas. Plastic bags are not biodegradable, and thus break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits that can contaminate soil or be ingested by wildlife.

According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, in 2012, 1.4 billion pounds of bags were thrown into America’s waste stream and about 7 percent of that amount was recycled. They can be recycled to make composite lumber or more bags.

While a partial plastic bag ban may contribute to the better health of local waterways, supporters in Columbia admit that the policy would be no panacea for the larger problem of litter and waste.
Heimos, the city’s stormwater educator, said his stream teams find plenty of other discarded junk that may have had a useful second life.

“When you look at 95 percent of what we collect, it could have been recycled in the first place,” Heimos said.

One intent behind the proposed bag ban, supporters say, is to wean customers off plastic shopping bags and get them to use recyclable or reusable bags. As most already do voluntarily, grocers would be required to offer reusable bags to customers.

Additionally, customers would be allowed to bring their own bags to stores — even the plastic ones that grocers would no longer be allowed to distribute — to carry out their groceries.

Many other types of retailers would be exempt from the ban, including clothiers and gift shops, as would restaurants who give out bags for take-out.

If approved, the ban would not go into effect for one year. After that time, violators would be fined between $100 and $300 per offense. The city’s environmental commission is working on a report for the city council on the proposal, but Lile said there is currently no timeline in place for when they’ll release the report.

Jeanna Glaubitz, who lives near Midway just west of Columbia, had just finished shopping at the West Broadway Gerbes and was loading a bundle of plastic bags into the back of her automobile. She said she reuses her plastic bags and that, while she finds them useful in their second lives as trash-can liners, she could live with a ban on bags in Columbia.

“I would be unnerved by it, but I would find a way,” Glaubitz said.

Blake Maples, a Columbia resident who was heading into Gerbes on Wednesday, said he would support a ban. “Most progressive cities have ended bags, period,” Maples said.

Columbia’s proposal to ban bags while charging a small fee is one of several models communities have used to curtail the use of plastic bags.

This year, California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on plastic bags, though the state took its cue from local communities: more than 100 California municipalities had passed bans of their own.

Under California’s law, which goes into effect in July, customers are charged 10 cents for recyclable paper bags, reusable plastic bags and compostable bags. The law also provides $2 million in competitive loans for companies to businesses seeking to manufacture reusable bags.

Plastics manufacturers are currently funding a referendum petition drive to suspend the law and put the issue before California voters on the November 2016 ballot. Opponents have until Dec. 30 to submit a petition with more than 504,000 signatures.

According to Californians Against Waste, a not-for-profit that advocates for bag bans, 58 cities outside of California will have laws in effect as of April.

Nationwide, groups like the American Chemistry Council, which represent plastics manufacturers, have fought against bans, saying prohibitions would cost manufacturing jobs. The group argues that some cities’ bans disproportionately affect low-income shoppers.

The American Chemistry Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Ken Midkiff, a member of the city commission, said he suggested Columbia’s ban include a provision that would exempt customers who use government assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program from having to pay the 10-cent fee for paper bags.

The city of Columbia’s Solid Waste utility recycles No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, which includes plastic beverage containers, milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergents. But it does not recycle plastic Nos. 3 through 7, nor does it recycle plastic film like shopping bags and sleeves for newspapers.

The city’s blue recycling bags, like plastic shopping bags and other materials, cannot be recycled at the city’s Material Recovery Facility in northeast Columbia. They are buried in the landfill.

Cynthia Mitchell, manager of the city’s Solid Waste utility, said the blue bags are made of recyclable material, but said they usually can’t be reused because they become contaminated or get glass embedded into them.

But the Material Recovery Facility also has the problem of not having the space to store enough plastic bags to recycle them in a cost-effective way — they are light and airy and the city needs a lot of them to be able to put them out on the market.

“There are a lot of things that could be recycled if we had the space and the funding to sort it and process it,” said Mitchell, who said Solid Waste urges residents to take plastic bags to stores that offer bag recycling.

In a recent afternoon in the 5,000-square-foot recovery facility, material handlers on the ground floor rip open the blue recycling bags distributed to Solid Waste customers and feed the contents onto a conveyer belt that takes the refuse up to a second level. There, a second group of handlers pick out materials that pass muster to be recycled.

Plastic bags are an pervasive presence around the facility; they can be seen poking out of piles of materials or lightly tumbling across the floor.

During a tour, Ken Bates, a supervisor at the facility, surveyed a large pile of newspapers that was destined for Johnson Products/Cell-Pak, which buys the newsprint to make insulation. He plucked a plastic bag out of the pile, saying it could be the “kiss of death” for the company’s machines.

Keeping unusable plastic out of the mix of materials that the facility can sell to buyers, Bates said, “makes our job a lot harder than it has to be.”

Plastic bags are gathered up and taken to the city’s 107-acre landfill just east of the facility to be buried with the rest of the refuse.

On a recent windy day, Adam White, a bioreactor specialist for the Columbia Public Works Department, took a reporter out onto landfill cell No. 5, a 30-foot-tall mound of trash that — like the rest of the landfill — has been shrouded in dirt, except one patch where dirt had been moved aside and bulldozers, a dump truck and a compactor were working to pile in that day’s trash pick-ups.

The work area was bounded by three litter fences, each measuring 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide.The fences — each costing between $3,000 and $5,000 each, White said, and the city’s Solid Waste utility has six of them on hand — are placed around work sites to catch lightweight debris that the heavy machinery and the stiff wind were kicking up from the area.

“We have a lot of challenges with the scattering of litter,” White said. He said that paper, styrofoam and plastic tend to be the materials most likely to evade the screens and fly out of work areas.
From there, the city relies on temp workers to chase down the runaway trash. Leah Christian, a management fellow in City Manager Mike Matthes’ office, said the the city spends about $45,000 annually on the temp workers and it is estimated that about one-third of that amount is devoted to picking up plastic.

Grocery store chains with locations in Columbia contacted for this story either did not respond to requests for comment or, if reached, declined to take a position on the issue. But industry groups representing retailers and grocers have expressed opposition to the laws limiting bags.

“This will cost the consumer and will be an inconvenience,” said David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association. Overfelt said the ban would limit consumers’ choices on how they can carry their purchases from a store and that, comparatively speaking, plastic bags cause less environmental harm than paper bags because plastic bag production has a lower carbon footprint than paper bag production.

Paul Weitzel, managing partner for Willard Bishop, a Barrington, Ill.-based retail consulting firm, noted that some grocery store chains are taking the environmentally-friendly approach and ditching plastic bags.

But, Weitzel said, stores must also look at the economic side of the situation: plastic bags cost stores about a half-cent a piece right now, compared with about 6 1/2 cents a piece for paper bags.
“The plastic bag is just so cheap right now,” he said.

While representatives for chain grocery stores operating in Columbia demurred from offering an opinion about Columbia’s proposed bag ban, they were willing to discuss their plastic bag recycling programs.

Tara Deering-Hansen, a spokeswoman for Hy-Vee, said in an email that, in the company’s 2013 fiscal year, its 230 stores recycled more than 2 million pounds worth of plastic shopping bags. The recycled materials, she said, was reused to make new plastic bags.

Gerbes also recycles the bags that customers bring back to the store and uses the materials to make new bags, said Sheila Lowry, a spokeswoman for Dillon Stores, which operates Gerbes. Since September, she said, Dillon stores in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska have recycled 394 tons of plastic bags.

Lile, chairman of the Environment and Energy Commission, said commission members are still weighing the pros and cons of the proposal and meeting with some business owners to ensure the ban would not unfairly burden some sectors of the population or particular businesses.

“We want to make sure that local business owners understand why we’re doing this,” Lile said.

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