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Omaha considers collecting fee on plastic bags

March 31, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Any proposal requiring Omaha retailers to charge shoppers a fee for plastic grocery bags would be a nonstarter for some of the largest grocery retailers in town.

“We are not interested in the 5- or 10-cent fee,” said Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association. Retailers including Baker’s, Family Fare and Fareway said the association speaks on their behalf on the issue.

Meanwhile, at least one Omaha store, Wohlner’s Neighborhood Grocery and Deli, supports a fee.

And grocery shoppers in Omaha had their own mixed bag of opinions on the idea of a fee, suggesting there will be a vigorous debate ahead if the proposal goes forward.

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray and Councilman Pete Festersen said that they are researching how the city could require grocery stores and other retailers to collect a fee on plastic shopping bags. The goal is to cut down on litter, they said, and some of the money could be used on anti-litter or environmental education programs.

Not surprisingly, the Sierra Club is in favor of the proposal; the plastic industry is against it.

As for grocery stores, Siefken questioned whether a fee would actually cut down on litter. One thing it definitely would cut down on, even if just a little, she said: money in consumers’ wallets.

“That’s money out of the pockets of our consumers, and it’s money that some of them don’t have,” Siefken told the Omaha World-Herald .

She concurred with Councilman Brinker Harding, who told The World-Herald last week that the cost of plastic bags would mean some people had less money for food. Mayor Jean Stothert also said she would oppose a fee, calling it a tax on groceries.

The grocery association is polling members on the issue, and Siefken said she’ll propose alternative options to cut down on litter in Omaha.

“We want to be part of a positive solution,” she said.

The owner of Cubby’s convenience stores and Phil’s Cash Saver supermarket, where many shoppers rely on federal food assistance dollars, said the fee would hurt consumers.

“It would be a regressive grocery tax on customers,” said De Lone Wilson, president of Cubby’s.

Hy-Vee said it would monitor the council’s proposals, but a spokeswoman said she couldn’t say how the company might respond if a fee proposal advances, or how such a fee would affect Hy-Vee operations. She encouraged customers to bring plastic bags back to the store to be recycled, or to buy reusable bags.

Aldi and Walmart didn’t comment for this story. Fresh Thyme Chief Executive Officer Chris Sherrell didn’t have a position on the fee, but said his company is looking at ways to cut back on plastic bags because of the litter and environmental impact.

“The goal would be that we move as much as we can toward reusable bags, but that takes some time for people to get used to and it’s not the norm,” he said in an interview.

It’s not hard to make the switch, said Erin O’Brien, 35, who lives in Council Bluffs but does much of her shopping in Omaha. She keeps a reusable bag rolled up in her purse, and feels a “sense of pride” in using it. She said she’s glad to see a public conversation about plastic bag use.

Lee Martinson, 75, was recently shopping at Baker’s. He said he asks for paper at checkout.

“I’ve often thought they should do away with (plastic bags),” he said. He sees them in trees and fences, and is OK with a fee. “People that use plastic will just pay the nickel because they’re lazy,” he said.

Some stores take their own steps to reduce plastic bag use.

Target stores give a discount of 5 cents per bag when shoppers bring reusable bags, and some Hy-Vee stores do the same. Aldi charges for both paper and plastic bags.

At Wohlner’s near 33rd and Dodge Streets, owner Mike Schwartz gives a 5 percent discount to shoppers who use store-branded reusable bags. Jerry Gress, 76, had his Wohlner’s bag ready in his cart.

“I’m just tired of plastic bags,” Gress said. “I can get everything in this bag, and if I get plastic, they give you about 10 bags for 10 items.” He said he favors a “nuisance tax” on plastic bags.

Some shoppers had mixed feelings: Omar Robinson, 34, walked to Wohlner’s from his office at Mutual of Omaha and took his purchases out in a plastic bag. Still, he said the fee is a good idea to reduce litter. While he reuses bags in wastebaskets in his home, he has to pick up plastic bags that blow into his backyard from a city park.

The diversity of opinions in Omaha is reflected around the country. Throughout California, and in some cities around the country, governments have banned single-use plastic bags, and there are efforts in Massachusetts to do the same.

But even more states have preemptively banned a ban on the bags, including Iowa, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Arizona and Missouri.

At Wohlner’s, Omaha police officer Matt McDonald, 25, purchased a single loaf of bread and carried it out without a bag.

“I don’t like the tax myself, but that’s just because I don’t want to pay extra for something I’ve been used to my whole life,” he said. “At the same time, I think it’s a better idea for the environment.”

Plenty of people in Omaha flat-out oppose a fee.

Jared Tubaugh, 43, who works in information technology in Omaha, said the fee was “liberal thinking.” He uses mostly plastic bags when buying groceries, and reuses them in wastebaskets. He suggested putting minimum-security inmates to work on the litter problem: “Instead of imposing a tax on Omaha residents, why not have criminals pick up trash along our roads?”

Ramona Puente, 71, shopping at the same west Omaha Baker’s store Friday, said she shouldn’t have to pay to correct a problem she doesn’t contribute to.

“I don’t like that at all, for myself, because I recycle them,” she said. Litter isn’t a problem in her neighborhood, where people keep their yards picked up.

“I don’t live in a wealthy neighborhood, but most people are proud.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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