City councilmen consider 5-10 cent charge for plastic bags in Omaha; mayor calls it ‘tax on groceries’

City councilmen consider 5-10 cent charge for plastic bags in Omaha; mayor calls it ‘tax on groceries’
World-Herald News Service

Two Omaha city councilmen are looking into ways to reduce the number of plastic bags in the city.

City Council President Ben Gray and Councilman Pete Festersen said Tuesday they’re researching how the city could require grocery stores and small retailers to collect 5-10 cents from consumers for a plastic bag.

Mayor Jean Stothert said she wouldn’t support such a measure. She called it a “tax on groceries.”

The councilmen said they’re also looking into how the city could encourage people to take reusable bags to do their shopping. Festersen said they’re not looking to ban plastic bags, as has happened in some other cities.

Both councilmen said they see plastic bags littered about the city, in the trees, lakes and elsewhere.

Festersen said he was “plogging” — jogging and picking up trash — in Memorial and Elmood Parks over the weekend.

“We see it everywhere,” he said. “I think it’s totally preventable.”

Stothert said the proposal from Gray and Festersen likely wouldn’t solve the problem of reducing plastic bags at the landfill since it has exemptions for newspaper, dry cleaning other bags.

She questioned if the city, under state law and its charter, has the authority to collect such revenue and put it toward environmental betterment.

The councilmen haven’t asked for her support, Stothert said.

Gray emphasized the proposal is still conceptual; he hasn’t yet had a meeting with Stothert on the issue. “We want to get feedback from people,” he said.

Stothert said the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, which told her about the proposal, has offered a compromise under which people who return plastic bags to grocers would get a nickel.

“That to me would actually help solve the problem that they are trying to deal with and yet wouldn’t cost people more to buy their groceries,” she said.

Gray said now is the time to explore the issue, as the city contemplates the parameters of its next 10-year waste collection contract.

He said the “check-out bag” initiative would improve the city’s environmental quality and help trash haulers.

Other cities, like Chicago, have instituted a grocery bag fee. In Chicago, plastic bags cost 7 cents each.

“This is still a new concept in most cities and it’s going to be a new one here,” Gray said. “But we recognize the necessity for addressing this plastic bag problem.”

Some grocery stores in the city already encourage reusable bags and some don’t offer plastic bags. But Gray and Festersen said there needs to be a bigger push.

The councilmen said the initiative is in an early phase. They said they’ve met with the Nebraska Retail Federation and other groups.

Jim Otto, president of the retail federation, said he hasn’t had a chance to talk with the federation’s membership. He met with Gray and Festersen a couple of weeks ago.

“I really truly appreciate them reaching out and checking with us before going ahead without the industry,” he said.

Otto said he doesn’t know of any other Nebraska community that has contemplated a similar proposal.

Councilman Brinker Harding expressed concerns about the proposal, saying it could affect people who could least afford it.

“If you have 10 bags (and the fees cost 10 cents per bag), that’s $1,” he said. “That’s a package of pasta someone could be buying for their family.”

Under discussions now, the initiative would target T-shirt plastic bags, as they’re known in the retail industry — like the bags you get at most grocery stores. It would generally apply to those used at those stores and small retailers. Dry cleaning bags, for example, wouldn’t count.

If consumers were charged fees, the revenues could be used to offset retailers’ costs or could help fund environmental education or help pay for additional reusable bags for people who can’t afford them.

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