Bag law aims to reduce litter

City will soon require retailers to charge a nickel per bag

Taneisha Holm bags groceries for a customer at Guse Green Grocer
Taneisha Holm bags groceries for a customer at Guse Green Grocer in Lynnhurst. In January, Minneapolis retailers will have to start charging customers a 5-cent fee for every disposable bag used. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

When Guse Green Grocer in Lynnhurst ran out of plastic bags last month, owner Terry Thomson didn’t place another order.

The local grocer at the corner of 46th & Bryant knows its customers aren’t fans of extra plastic. The store offers paper bags for customers who don’t bring their own, but as of January, Minneapolis will require Guse and other retailers in the city to charge 5 cents for each bag they distribute to customers.

The goal of the new ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council in November, is to reduce litter and waste. About 87,000 tons of plastic bags are thrown away each year in Minneapolis, according to Patrick Hanlon, director of environmental programs for the city’s health department, and less than 5% of plastic bags are recycled. Plastic bags also tend to get caught in recycling sorting machines, delaying the recycling process. While plastic bags have greater long-term effects, paper bags are harsher on the environment in their production stage.

“This fee is really adding a cost to the use of bags,” Hanlon said.

The ordinance requires retail stores to charge a nickel for every bag — paper, plastic or compostable — distributed to customers. Retailers will keep all the fees and will be required to track the number of bags being distributed, so city officials can verify stores are participating and assess fines to violators. 

While many environmental groups applauded the ordinance, there was some resistance from retailers. The move was opposed by the Minnesota Grocers Association, which argued it would put Minneapolis grocers at a competitive disadvantage to stores in neighboring suburbs. 

 “What we don’t like about the ordinance is we don’t want to have to charge our customers for bags,” said Mike Oase, chief operations officer for Kowalski’s Market, a Minnesota grocer with two stores in Southwest Minneapolis.

The ordinance does not include smaller bags without handles used for items such as produce, baked goods or flowers. It also exempts carry-out food bags, dry cleaning bags, bags at the farmers market or bags that come from exchanges without direct transactions, like newspaper bags. Those receiving benefits like food stamps are exempted from the fee. 

The hope is the fee will lead to a dramatic decrease in bag litter. In Washington D.C., a 5-cent bag fee implemented in 2010 led to a 72% decrease in the number of plastic bags removed from the Potomac River, according to Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes cleanups in the capital. 

Carryout bags are a major source of litter in the city. Last year, Minneapolis residents removed more than 4,700 pounds of litter from streets, parks and waterways during the Earth Day cleanup.

A lot of that litter ends up in the city’s waterways according to Rachael Crabb, water resources manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Most litter ends up on the curb line and often gets washed into drains.  Trash that is littered as far as a mile from a water pipeline can end up in lakes, creeks and the Mississippi River, she said.

“Once trash is in the water, it’s really hard to get out,” Crabb said.

The MPRB frequently cleans litter from parks, she said. But fishing floating plastic bags out of the water is time- and labor-intensive. So, preventing more plastic from being littered in the first place is a big step.

Plastic is forever. It takes years to break down and, even then, continues to cause damage.

“When we throw out plastic waste it will all become microplastic and be in the environment,” Crabb said.

The city passed a plastic bag ban in 2016, but that ordinance was rendered moot by a law passed by the then Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature that blocked cities from banning bags. The fee aims to address the issue without violating state law. 

Southwest grocers

Kowalski’s Market has sought to promote environmental efforts by having plastic bag recycling drop-offs at stores. The grocer has had a 5-cent rebate program for customers who bring their own bags for 15 years, Oase said, and in recent years has allowed people to donate that rebate to Great River Greening, a Minnesota-based environmental conservation nonprofit. Oase said Kowalski’s will be putting up signs in the parking lots of their Minneapolis stores reminding people of the bag fee. Often, he said, people have bags but forget to bring them into the store. The grocer is in the process of figuring out how it will track bag sales and is training their cashiers for the change.

At some Minneapolis grocers, the fee won’t change policies. German-based grocer ALDI has never offered free bags at its U.S. stores, according to Matt Lillia, vice president of ALDI’s Faribault division. In Minneapolis, the grocer charges 7 cents for paper bags and 10 cents for plastic bags and encourages shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

“This saves money by avoiding the cost of the bag and it cuts down waste to help the environment,” Lilla said.

Today, about 85% of Guse Green Grocer customers bring their own bags, according to employee Taneisha Holm. She doesn’t anticipate the ordinance will change much for the business and believes the store’s shoppers will support it.

“We have pretty easy customers,” Holm said. 

The city is planning to conduct an education campaign in the first six months of 2020 before it starts fining businesses for not complying with the ordinance, Hanlon said, and hopes retailers and shoppers will adjust quickly. 

“People can adapt,” Kyle Samejima, executive director of Minneapolis Climate Action, said at a public hearing about the ordinance.