-Sherry Devlin reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Missoula officials are writing an ordinance to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags at the city’s largest retail stores as a public nuisance.
The ordinance will be patterned after one already successfully adopted and implemented in Park City, Utah.
That law prohibits a large retailer – one with over 12,000 square feet – from distributing “disposable single use plastic bags to customers” and says “recyclable paper bags or reusable bags should be made available to customers.”
Park City’s ordinance exempts bags provided by pharmacists to hold prescription drugs, newspaper bags, door hanger bags, dry cleaning bags and bags sold in packages intended for garbage, pet waste or yard waste.
Also exempt are bags used by consumers inside stores to hold fruit, vegetables and other bulk foods, to wrap flowers, to wrap frozen foods or meat or to hold unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods.
In an interview with Missoula Current, Chase Jones, the city of Missoula’s sustainability manager, said last winter’s storm-driven escape of thousands of plastic bags from the North Hills landfill elevated the need for an ordinance.
In fact, one of the proponents of the legislation is Republic Services, which owns and manages Missoula’s landfill.
“I’m sure the extent of the pollution along I-90 during last winter’s storm was more than we realized,” Jones said, “and took considerable time and money to address. Who knows where some of those bags ended up.”
Park City also approached its ordinance from the perspective of a public nuisance. The ubiquitous throwaways aren’t just a problem at the landfill, Jones said.
“These thin grocery bags also end up in recycling bins like we have in Missoula,” he said. “They are terrible problems for recycling sorters and processors.
“A ban would ease the burden on our recycling system, and make recycling more viable and efficient.”
“We thought the public nuisance – the trash, littering perspective – would resonate with a lot of people,” said Ginny Merriam, the city of Missoula’s communications director. “Certainly, the managers of Republic Services have asked for relief from dealing with that nuisance.”
Dozens of Missoula citizens have also asked the city to enact a plastic bag ban in recent months, citing the global and local impacts of single-use plastics. In fact, such disposables account for more than 20 percent of the space in U.S. landfills.
“And we know single-use plastics get into the Clark Fork River and our streams and lakes,” Jones said. “We know they harm our water and our wildlife.”
Jones said he appreciates the Park City ordinance’s focus on the largest local retailers, both because it doesn’t create a burden for small businesses and because it packs more bang for the buck. The larger the store, the greater its use of plastic bags.
“That seemed to make a lot of sense,” added Merriam. “We could imagine a small retailer downtown who had specialty bags printed, then could not use them once we adopted an ordinance. We want to create the least amount of hardship.”
Plus, Jones believes there would be a “positive residual effect” of a plastic bag ban – where small retailers would choose to participate because of the accompanying positive environmental and marketing messages.
That’s one of the reasons he intends to reach out to retailers, large and small, while working on a draft ordinance – and why Merriam would work with retailers on a positive communications plan, should a plastic bag ban be adopted by the Missoula City Council.
“We know there are some targeted stakeholder engagement groups we need to do with community groups, the general public and also with retailers,” Jones said. “We need an ordinance that has input from everyone before we ever bring it to the City Council.”
“We also have a Zero Waste Missoula group that we haven’t talked to yet, and our code compliance folks at City Hall,” said Merriam. “There are two of them for the entire city. They investigate just about every complaint possible: people who don’t mow their lawns, illegal camping, weed issues. They have their hands full.”
Jones also needs a City Council member to step forward and volunteer to carry the proposal, which should be ready by the fall.
Neither Jones nor Merriam see a plastic bag ban as a “crackdown-type ordinance,” in Merriam’s words.
In fact, Jones said his counterpart in Park City reports “little to no enforcement issues.”
“In Park City, the ordinance was celebrated in the community,” he said. “People there understand the ban and accept it.”
Merriam said Missoula city officials would work with local retailers “to make it something positive that retailers could get involved with and that would give them a chance to market their business on preprinted reusable bags.”
“We hope it would not become an enforcement issue,” she said.
Mayor John Engen, who assured activists at last week’s City Council meeting that a plastic bag ban was in the works, has pushed green initiatives since he took office, Merriam said.
The plastic bag ordinance was part of the conversation as far back as five years ago, but was delayed by the city’s work on acquiring its drinking water system.
“Right before we started our quest to gain ownership of the water utility, the mayor and I met about this,” Merriam said. “It seemed like such a straightforward thing to tackle. But then we got involved with the water utility, and that consumed our time until recently.
“Now we had this wind event and it caused so much stress for the landfill managers, and we’re hearing from citizens and the City Council that this is such an obvious thing for a community to do to reduce waste and the use of plastics in the first place.”
Already, 348 U.S. cities have ordinance banning or limiting the use of single-use plastic bags.
Merriam said she and Jones zeroed in on Park City’s ordinance because they were looking for another city in the Rocky Mountains with an existing, well-accepted ordinance from a community with similar sensibilities.
She and Jones will look at other cities’ ordinances, too, as they draft a proposal for Missoula.
Over time, Merriam believes the ordinance would create a new social norm in Missoula, where citizens and retailers alike chose to forgo the use of one-time plastic bags in favor of recyclable paper bags or reusable bags.