Published On: Thu, May 19th, 2016

Should consumers in Washtenaw County pay extra fees for disposable bags?

ANN ARBOR, MI — Consumers in Washtenaw County could be charged extra fees at grocery-store checkout lines to get disposable carryout bags in the future.

County commissioners are considering adopting a county ordinance that would impose a 10-cent fee for every single-use bag received at retail grocery stores.

Plastic Recycling

Should consumers in Washtenaw County pay extra fees for disposable bags?

The proposed Carryout Bag Ordinance was discussed and debated at Wednesday night’s county board meeting.

After multiple commissioners voiced concerns about the proposal, the board voted to postpone the matter to June 1.

The proposed ordinance defines a disposable carryout bag as a bag made of any material, commonly plastic or paper, provided to a customer at the point of sale to carry out purchases, and which does not meet the criteria set for a reusable carryout bag as defined in the ordinance. There would be a 10-cent fee imposed on consumers for each disposable carryout bag, regardless of whether it’s paper or plastic.

The proposed ordinance — intended to steer more people toward using reusable totes — also stipulates that paper bags must contain a minimum of 40 percent post-consumer recycled content.

Commissioner Dan Smith, R-Northfield Township, said he questions whether the county has the authority to adopt such an ordinance.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, said he supports the intent of the ordinance, but he doesn’t like the idea of imposing fees on consumers. He said he’s worried it would be a burden to low-income people.

Others pointed out the ordinance would provide a fee exemption for people who could show they’re on government welfare.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, acknowledged more work is needed to make sure the county is getting the ordinance worded just right. Rabhi and Alicia Ping, R-Saline, have been the lead commissioners on the issue, but the proposed ordinance was drafted by staff.

Rabhi said the county is only about 20 percent of the way through its stakeholder engagement process, but the ordinance is being brought forward early because there’s pending state legislation that could take away the county’s ability to even pass such an ordinance. Senate Bill 853 passed through the state Senate on May 10 and awaits approval from the state House.

Rabhi said he wants the county to adopt an ordinance before the state legislation passes so the county can have a foot in the door, and say to the Legislature that it shouldn’t be meddling in local affairs.

If the pending bill doesn’t become law, Rabhi said, the county can resume its ordinance process and continue to fine-tune the language.

He said he wants to make sure it doesn’t impose a burden on people when they shouldn’t be burdened.

The resolution before the board Wednesday night stated that the ordinance wouldn’t become effective until Earth Day 2017.

The resolution notes the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan calls for an aggressive program to increase waste diversion, emphasizing commercial and residential source reduction and recycling. The county estimates annual plastic-bag waste-management costs exceed $200,000 for the two publicly owned material recovery facilities in the county.

Annual costs to the facilities include regular damage to equipment, decreased operations and labor efficiencies, increased residual waste-to-landfill costs and jeopardized commodity market values, the resolution states, noting the facilities are unable to recycle any plastic-bag waste.

“Plastic-bag waste-management costs thus act as a direct obstruction to Washtenaw County’s residential and commercial recycling economy,” the resolution states. “And annual plastic-bag management costs exceed $25,000 for Advanced Disposal’s Arbor Hills Landfill, the single operating landfill in Washtenaw County, serving to further obstruct Washtenaw County achieving its Solid Waste Management Plan goals.”

The resolution states that communities across the nation and globe that adopt bag policies consistently demonstrate reduction in plastic bag consumption, litter and contamination in recycling and waste streams.

Rabhi said the idea behind applying the 10-cent fee to both paper and plastic bags is to not encourage one over the other.

“Paper is more energy intensive to produce on the front end with cutting down trees and deforestation. It’s also a heavier material, so it’s more costly to transport,” he said.

The proposed ordinance states that retail grocers would retain 20 percent of the fees, described as “eco-fees,” with the remaining 80 percent — along with any fines for violations — going to the county’s Stewardship Fund to further the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

Fees retained by retail grocery stores would be intended to develop and provide educational resources to customers, the public and employees about the ordinance, the ecological benefits of reusable bags, and proper end-of-life management and recycling of carryout bags.

All retail grocery stores would have to report to the county quarterly with the total number of disposable paper and plastic carryout bags provided, the amount of money collected from fees, and a summary of efforts undertaken to promote use of reusable bags by customers. It’s expected implementation of the ordinance would require hiring another part-time or full-time county employee.