Should Raleigh charge shoppers for using plastic bags?

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2014 

— In an effort to reduce litter and landfill waste, city leaders may consider whether Raleigh should impose a fee on plastic bags.

City Councilman Bonner Gaylord floated the idea in an email to city staff, though he stressed that he’s not yet sold on the fee. He wants Raleigh to research the possibility of charging 5 to 10 cents for each plastic bag distributed in the city, then using the revenue for stream restoration or litter clean-up.

“I don’t have a position on the matter – I don’t know enough right now,” he said. “I’m curious to see what other communities have done and how it’s benefitted them or hurt them.”

Plenty of major American cities either charge fees or ban plastic bags completely, including Chicago, Austin, Dallas and Washington, D.C. New York City is currently considering a 10-cent fee per bag. And in North Carolina, plastic bags are banned in three Outer Banks counties.

Environmentalists say they’re eager to see Raleigh join the trend.

“Why haven’t we done it sooner?” asked Matthew Starr of the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation. “It doesn’t take a policy maker or a Ph.D. scientist to go out on a river bank, to go out on Falls Lake ... and you will undoubtedly find a plastic bag on the shoreline or in the water.”

Starr said Raleigh shoppers likely wouldn’t miss plastic bags once they grow accustomed to the change. “What do we get that’s positive from plastic bag use?” he said. “There’s paper bags, there’s reusable bags. It’s just about changing the public mindset and getting out of a habit.”

Plenty of grocers in the city use alternatives, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Costco and Aldi. But at other stores, plastic is still the norm.

Mike Harris of Larry’s Super Market said most customers at the small Raleigh Boulevard grocery use plastic. Asking shoppers to pay an extra 10 cents per bag at the register, he says, “probably wouldn’t go over too well with the consumer.”

“We’d have to pass that along to the consumer somehow or another,” Harris added. A 5 to 10 cent fee, he said, is “more than the cost of the bags itself. There’s no way any grocery store could absorb that kind of increase.”

In cities where plastic is banned, many grocers have switched to paper bags for shoppers who don’t bring reusables. Harris said that could alter the business model for his store, which prides itself on discounts in a low-income section of the city.

“We don’t even use paper bags that often,” he said. “They’re just much more costly.”

Gaylord said the city council will need to look closely at the impact on businesses. “Anytime you’re adding additional regulation or any cost to customers, it has repercussions,” he said. “We would need to look at how other communities have responded to that.”

The councilman wants to make sure everything the city collects goes towards streams or litter programs, so “there’s a natural connection between the reasoning for the fee and the ways the revenue is used.”

Gaylord said he’ll be asking the full council whether it wants to do further research on the idea. He says more information is needed before any formal regulation is drafted.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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