The Potluck

6 years after proposal, Minneapolis disposable bag fee to take effect Oct. 1

By: - September 22, 2021 2:09 pm

A discarded shopping bag litters the Greenway in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Stores in Minneapolis will be required to charge customers 5 cents for each disposable bag they use beginning next month — nearly six years after first being proposed by the City Council.

The ordinance aims to nudge customers to bring their own reusable bags, reducing the prevalence of plastic bags that require petroleum to produce and end up littering the city and clogging storm drains and recycling machinery.

The requirement mainly affects grocery stores and retailers, providing a slew of exemptions for restaurant carryout bags, newspaper bags, and bags for produce and bulk goods. Farmers’ markets and food banks are also exempt, and people paying with food stamps will not be charged.

In the face of the powerful plastics industry, dozens of cities across the country have banned plastic bags completely — from Boston, Mass., to Wasilla, Alaska — but enacting the ordinance in Minneapolis faced multiple hurdles, including intervention by the state Legislature.

In 2015, Council Member Cam Gordon and then-Council Member Abdi Warsame first introduced an ordinance that banned plastic bags completely and required grocery stores and other retailers to charge 5 cents for paper bags.

The ordinance passed in 2016 and was set to take effect in June 2017 until state lawmakers stepped in. The Republican-controlled Legislature, with support from retailers and the plastics industry, included a provision in a 2017 budget bill that prohibited cities from banning the use of plastic bags or other disposable bags.

Then-Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, called the provision disappointing but nevertheless signed it into law along to protect spending priorities he supported. (State lawmakers have since introduced legislation to undo the prohibition on cities banning plastic bags but have been unable to get it through the divided Legislature.)

Gordon went back to the drawing board and rewrote the ordinance to require retailers to charge customers 5 cents for all disposable bags.

By then, support on the City Council had waned and it failed to pass again. Even Warsame, the co-author, abandoned the effort and voted to send the idea back to staff to gather more input.

Gordon, the council’s only Green Party member, waited until the makeup of the City Council changed after the 2017 election, with a new progressive majority easily passing it in 2019.

The city was set to begin implementing and enforcing the ordinance in January 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and raised fears that the virus could be spread from contaminated surfaces like reusable bags.

While many stores have already begun charging customers for disposable bags, the city won’t begin enforcing the requirement until Oct. 1. Even then, a spokeswoman for the city says the city will take “an education-forward approach to compliance,” focusing on informing businesses about the requirement.

Duluth also passed an ordinance requiring retailers to charge a bag fee, which goes into effect on Oct. 15.

More information about the ordinance can be found here.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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