AP NEWS

Plastic bag ban talks spur after floods in Sioux Falls

July 1, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Receding flood waters in Sioux Falls this spring revealed thousands of plastic bags along the Big Sioux River’s banks.

It drew the attention of the Friends of the Big Sioux River, a county official and the city’s sustainability coordinator, who this week all told the Argus Leader more needs to be done in Sioux Falls to curb the use of plastic bags by retailers and consumers, especially since recycling centers here are no longer accepting those items.

“It was like a plastic bag forest,” said Dana Loseke, chairman of Friends of the Big Sioux River, a nonprofit that works to clean up the river and its watershed while raising awareness about environmental sustainability. “It was absolutely about the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen in Sioux Falls.”

Loseke said the number of plastic bags found in and along the river in Sioux Falls dwarfs the amount of litter his group sees when surveying the river in rural areas of the state. He credits that to the sheer number of retailers in Sioux Falls that use plastic to bag items they sell to customers.

In the past, grocery stores would offer paper bags to their customers, but plastic has become the bag of choice in recent years due to sustainability concerns around the use of paper made from trees and the cost of producing paper bags verse plastic bags.

According to data provided by Friends of the Big Sioux River, the average family uses about 1,500 plastic bags each year. And those bags are used for less than 12 minutes, on average.

“This is all coming from the retailers and everybody who hands out a plastic bag with a bottle of aspirin,” Loseke said.

Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth made mention of the amount of litter that lined the river banks this spring during a commission meeting this week while floating the idea that governments in Sioux Falls should consider placing restrictions on the use of single-use plastic bags.

It’s not a novel idea. Other cities and two states around the country have taken similar steps, either banning the use of plastic bags or requiring a fee be applied to a customer’s bill if they insist on using one.

California and Hawaii have completely banned plastic bags on a statewide level and more than 100 cities have bans or taxes on plastic bags.

“At some point we’ve got to think more long-term,” Barth said. “We can do better than we are doing.”

Jessica Sexe, sustainability coordinator for the city of Sioux Falls, said its unfortunate plastic bags aren’t items that can be placed into single-stream recycling bins anymore, but she noted that many grocery stores like Sunshine Foods, Walmart and Hy-Vee will accept used plastic bags and have drop-off sites near their store entrances.

Spreading the word about that option is part of Sexe’s office’s educational initiative that will be launched in the coming weeks. Beyond that, she said the city will likely try to do outreach to retailers to encourage them to cut down on their use of plastic bags by offering reusable bags.

But she cautioned there can be unintended consequences to outright bans on plastic bags. For instance, in communities with plastic bag bans, the use of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags increases and that’s even more problematic for the environment, she said.

“What they found was most effective was charging per bag. It decreased the use of plastic bags a lot more,” she said. “So we’re looking at what other communities are doing and what’s working for them.”

Some retailers, though, aren’t waiting for a government mandate to take action. Costco and Aldi, for example, don’t offer single-use plastic bags. Instead, customers there either use reusable bags, boxes or nothing at all.

Tina Potthoff, vice president of communications in Hy-Vee’s corporate office, said their customers still have plastic bags as an option, but also are able to purchase reusable bags when they get to the check-out counter.

In 2018, Hy-Vee sold more than 200,000 reusable bags and recycled more than 2.7 million pounds of plastic bags and film, which included bags from other retailers, not just Hy-Vee.

This year, Hy-Vee also stopped using plastic to-go containers in its dining areas and instead began using a compostable material.

“This is certainly a topic that we’re following as more communities are looking at reducing plastics,” Potthoff said. “We are aware that it’s a growing problem with plastics.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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