Drumming up support for bag fee
An international movement to reduce the number of single-use shopping bags has reached the metro-east.
A group called Bring Your Own Glen-Ed plans to propose ordinances in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon that would require supermarkets and other retail stores to start charging 10 cents per bag. Its members also are helping residents of Collinsville, Highland, Belleville and Fairview Heights work toward the same goal.
The idea is to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags — like customers already do at Aldi stores — and to help solve a growing pollution problem.
“When you think about no-smoking laws, or even going back to seat belts, change is hard,” said group member Sheila Voss, 48, an Edwardsville resident and vice president of education at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. “There’s no silver bullet. But it’s all about public health.”
Dozens of countries and hundreds of cities around the world have enacted fees, taxes or bans to reduce the number of single-use bags, particularly those made of thin-ply plastic, in the past decade. Californians approved a statewide ban in 2016.
Proponents point out that these bags are typically made of petroleum-based plastic and aren’t biodegradable, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many end up in lakes, rivers and oceans, washing up on beaches and killing marine life and animals that ingest or get tangled up in them.
“(Plastics) don’t disappear,” said Bring Your Own member Mary Grose, 60, of Edwardsville, a pediatric nurse at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. “They don’t decompose. They break up into smaller pieces, and they get into our food source. They’re in our water. They’re in our soil. They’re in our air.”
Grose and other group members attended an Edwardsville City Council Administrative and Community Services Committee meeting in July to explain what they’re trying to do. They presented a sample ordinance but don’t intend to submit a formal proposal until it’s been fine-tuned with input from a small-business task force.
“The fee would be on plastic and paper, so people know they’re both harmful to the environment,” Grose said. “Paper requires a lot of water, and you have to cut down a lot of trees. Chemicals are used (in the production process), and there are carbon emissions because the bags have to be transported.”
At this point, the group is recommending that only retail stores be required to charge the 10 cents, not restaurants.
Ordinances would have to be approved by Edwardsville City Council and Glen Carbon Village Board. Earlier this summer, Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton, a candidate for Illinois State Senate, expressed opposition to bans or fees on single-use bags, supporting voluntary efforts to solve the problem.
Retailers weigh in
Edwardsville/Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position on the Bring Your Own campaign, according to board chairman Sam Guarino, owner of Bella Milano Italian restaurants.
Scott Schneider, 65, is the only Edwardsville retailer who spoke at the city’s Administrative and Community Services Committee meeting. He co-owns Chef’s Shoppe gourmet kitchen, popcorn and candy store, which uses mostly paper shopping bags.
“I’m not against the ordinance,” Schneider said. “It just needs to be thought out and done correctly.”
Under the original proposal, stores would have to collect the 10 cents for single-use bags — rather than absorb the cost — and they could keep the extra money. Schneider is concerned that customers might blame them for the fee and view them as greedy. He’d rather see the money go for local parks or land acquisition.
On the other hand, Schneider wants the city to fairly determine who would pay for implementation costs, such as staff training, accounting changes and signs to explain the fee to customers.
“To make this right and equitable, it has to be set up so not all of the costs are born by the retailer,” he said.
Finally, Schneider feels ordinances would have to be passed in both Edwardsville and Glen Carbon since their business districts border each other. Otherwise, shoppers might favor stores with no charge for shopping bags.
In recent weeks, Schneider has been attending Bring Your Own task-force meetings, along with representatives of Big Frog Custom T-shirts & More and Happy Up, a toy and game store in Edwardsville.
Schnucks supermarket is one of several large retailers in the area. Officials of the St. Louis-based company declined to be interviewed about its bag distribution or the proposal for a single-use bag fee, but spokesman Paul Simon emailed the following statement:
“At checkout, Schnucks offers our customers the choice of plastic or paper bags, and most choose plastic. We also sell reusable bags at a very reasonable price. Certainly, we would prefer not to inconvenience our customers by limiting their options or charging them more; however, Schnucks will always remain in compliance with the laws of the municipalities in which we operate.”
Single-use plastic bags took the United States by storm in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. They were viewed as a strong, clean and inexpensive way to carry groceries and other purchases.
Today, environmental activists estimate that 500 billion to one trillion of the bags are used each year worldwide, and few are recycled. The Internet is filled with images of them covering beaches, hanging in trees and polluting the habitat of fish, turtles, animals and birds.
The proliferation of efforts to prohibit, tax or charge for single-use plastic bags has been met with resistance from their manufacturers, including South Carolina-based Novolex, which launched a Bag the Ban project. It argues that such laws hurt consumers and don’t really help the environment.
“Novolex believes in a better solution, one that increases the recycling and reuse of grocery and retail bags across the country without banning products or taxing families,” according to its website.
Bangladesh became the first country to ban single-use plastic bags in 2002 after officials determined that they clogged drainage systems during a devastating flood. Ireland imposed a bag tax the same year.
China outlawed the distribution of single-use plastic bags in 2008, just before hosting the Summer Olympics. Other countries that prohibit, tax or charge fees range from Israel to Kenya, Albania to Haiti, Colombia to The Netherlands. In England — where shoppers have been paying 5 pence (7 cents) per bag for three years — officials are considering doubling the fee.
Closer to home, Chicago recently repealed its ban on plastic bags and imposed a 7-cent tax on all single-use bags. Suburb Oak Park mandated a 10-cent fee earlier this year, with revenues split between retailers and the village’s sustainability fund.
“What we’re really trying to do is change habits,” Oak Park trustee Bob Tucker said in a Chicago Tribune story. “It’s a bad habit that I’ve formed, and I think a lot of people have formed. The way it works in Chicago right now, I find myself buying a couple items at a store, and you’re asked the question, and I say, ‘I don’t need a bag.’”
In some cases, companies are taking action apart from government regulation. The Kroger Co., one of the largest supermarket chains in the United States, plans to phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025.
A handful of states, including Missouri, are bucking the international trend. Their legislatures have passed laws preventing local governments, such as the city of St. Louis, from enacting fees, taxes or bans on single-use bags and reserving the states’ right to regulate.
Bring Your Own maintains that ordinances requiring or encouraging shoppers to switch to reusable bags would save them money in the long run and cut costs for retailers who wouldn’t have to furnish as many single-use bags.
“We’re paying for them now,” Grose said. “We think they’re free, but they’re not free. The businesses are adding the cost of the bags to the cost of the merchandise.”
Bring Your Own Glen-Ed grew out of a Facebook group called Action Metro East, which promotes “progressive ideas, values, and actions” with an emphasis on candidates and elected officials.
Bring Your Own created its sample ordinance after studying the experiences of other communities — Chicago and Oak Park; Portland, Maine; Boulder, Colorado; and San Jose, California — which have imposed fees or taxes and succeeded in reducing the number of single-use bags.
The group determined that a fee would be more well-received than a ban in metro-east communities.
“People don’t like bans,” Grose said. “It takes away their choice, and it stops them from thinking, and that’s what the purpose of this ordinance is.”
Group members have spent the past year educating the public, drumming up support and getting feedback from local residents. They have operated booths at Land of Goshen Community Market and other festivals, given presentations to clubs, shown films at libraries and persuaded hundreds of people to sign a “statement of support.”
The group also developed a partnership with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville students involved in sustainability programs on campus.
“People are excited,” said group member Stephanie Malench, 42, a writer, editor and substitute teacher who grew up in Edwardsville but now lives in Collinsville. “A lot of them will ask, ‘How can we do this in our town?’”
This summer, Malench has been helping Helen Johnson form a Belleville group to promote the reduction of single-use bags. It will be called Metro-East Earth Coalition.
Johnson, 77, is a retired nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Sierra Club member and a babysitter for her grandson, who has autism. She began taking her own reusable bags to the grocery store after doing Internet research on why so many children are being diagnosed with developmental disorders.
Johnson found studies showing links between chemicals, including those in plastics, and a range of health and environmental issues. She wanted to do something to help.
“A plastic bag takes anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose, depending on the bag,” Johnson said. “And there’s an easy remedy to this problem. We can all get cloth bags and wash them and reuse them. If we could just get plastic bags out of the retail stores, that would be a major improvement.”
In the future, Bring Your Own members hope to see metro-east communities reduce the number of plastic straws, silverware and other single-use items. Straws recently have been targeted by restaurants such as Starbucks, airlines such as United and colleges such as University of Portland.
“Long-term, it’s about bring-your-own everything,” Voss said. “But we decided to start by focusing on the single-use bags because they’re everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. People use them without even thinking.”