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Minnesota lawmakers look to dump city plastic bag bans

Minnesota state Sens. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks, left, and Justine Eichorn of Grand Rapids discuss issues before a Tuesday, March 7, 2017, committee meeting in which the use of plastic bags was a main topic. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Minnesota state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, center, tells a Senate committee Tuesday, March 7, 2017, about his bill that would forbid cities from banning plastic bags. With him are Brian Kopp of Lunds and Byerlys and Jamie Pfuhl of the Minnesota Grocers Association. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Minnesota state Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth looks through paperwork Tuesday, March 7, 2017, before telling a Senate committee that he feels cities should have the right to ban plastic bags. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL—The Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature appears ready to stop plastic bag bans.

A House committee last week voted 10-7 to stop ordinances such as Minneapolis has enacted and some Duluth residents want to stop stores from putting customers' purchases in plastic bags. A Senate committee on Tuesday, March 7, heard arguments for and against the idea, delaying legislation for potential inclusion in an overall environment bill.

"Plastic bags are the cheapest item available and are preferred by customers," Steve Rush of Holiday convenience stores told the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.

Rush said a small plastic bag costs about a penny, with a larger one 2 cents. Paper bags cost twice that, he said.

While that does not sound like much, Rush said it would cost $350,000 to switch Holiday stores in 160 cities to paper.

The cost to retail stores statewide if plastic bags are banned would be "quite substantial," he said.

But opponents to the bill offered by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the hit the environment takes from plastic waste also is substantial.

Environmentalists told senators that plastic often is eaten by animals, such as fish, and eventually ends up in human food, where it can make people sick.

A Great Lakes environmental group, Surfrider Foundation, opposes the Ingebrigtsen legislation and it wrote in a letter that "plastic bags are a pernicious form of litter, which turns up everywhere from our local waterways to highway buffers to farm fields to local parks and neighborhoods."

Ingebritsen's bill would offer $20,000 for to help local governments prepare plastic bag recycling programs. Grocery store officials said many stores already offer bag recycling.

Curbside recycling, used for paper and other plastics, "is not an option" for bags, Jamie Pfuhl of the Minnesota Grocers Association said.

If prices rise due to a plastic bag ban, Pfuhl said, consumers may go to the next town that does not ban bags. While saying her association shares environmental concerns, Pfuhl said that the state should not create competitive disadvantages among cities.

Sen. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, said his concern mostly is that the legislation removes local government control.

"I really am deeply concerned about taking away local autonomy," Simonson said.

Each of the state's cities, townships and counties should make its own decision on bags, the senator said, because "each one is unique unto itself."

Ingebrigtsen said he agrees with local government control, but "there is a time and place where, I think, the state has to step up instead of having all of these hodge podge regulations around the state."

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said a bag ban could have an unintended consequence. In his northeastern Minnesota area, the senator said, an organization that hires disabled people to sort plastic bags could be put out of business.

The League of Minnesota Cities, however, prefers to let cities decide such matters.

"The bill is in conflict with the league's long-held core value that local elected decision-makers are in the best position to determine what health, safety and welfare regulations best serve their constituents," Ann Finn of the league wrote to sponsors of the bill.

Finn said that cities must go through a lengthy and public process to adopt ordinances, which Minneapolis officials said is how they developed their bag ban over a year.

The Sierra Club North Star Chapter said Minnesotans discard more than 77,000 tons of plastic bags annually.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.