The delayed start date of a Duluth city ordinance to charge customers for plastic bags is fast approaching.

In the fall of 2019, the Duluth City Council approved a measure that requires businesses to charge customers for non-reusable plastic bags like those you might get when visiting a grocery store or other retailer.

While that deadline has been moved a few times, it looks like it will now be starting soon.

Why did the City of Duluth pass a bag fee ordinance?

The city's website explains that the ordinance is designed to "reduce litter and the harmful environmental impact caused by single use carryout bags". The ordinance imposes a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic carryout bags to encourage customers to choose reusable options.

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The city's FAQ page on the ordinance details the reasoning for the ordinance, saying "The Duluth city council found that single use carryout bags are polluting city waterways and sewers, endangering wildlife, contributing to climate change, and causing unsightly litter."

They go on to say "Given that plastic single use carryout bags can last for many years in landfills and potentially result in harmful chemical pollution, the city council determined that it would be in the best interests of the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens and visitors of Duluth to reduce the distribution of single use carryout bags and incentivize the use of reusable bags in the city."

While the measure passed 6-2 in the Duluth City Council, concerns about financial hardships for people with tight budgets and worries that Duluth businesses might suffer competitive disadvantages when compared to retailers outside of the city's borders were among objections offered by opponents.

When is the ordinance going into effect?

The ordinance was initially set to go into effect in April of 2020, but was pushed back as city councilors worried about financial hardships during the pandemic. The City Council pushed the start date back to January 1, 2021 initially, but then moved to delay the start of the ordinance until 90 days after the city and state's health emergencies ended.

Despite the uptick of cases this fall due to the Delta variant of COVID-19, the health emergencies declared by city and state officials were lifted over the summer. This puts the ordinance on track to start on October 15, according to the City of Duluth's website.

While the city's ordinance exclusively focuses on single-use plastic bags, you may see different rules that go further than the ordinance's specific focus. Retailers will be mandated to charge a fee for plastic bags, they are allowed to set additional rules beyond that.

Some retailers might go further

Retailers will universally be held to the rules about charging a 5-cent fee per bag for single-use plastic bags, but what you see from store to store in the city may vary.

The 5-cent fee is noted in the ordinance as a minimum fee retailers must charge. While there are no reports yet of retailers charging more in the city, they will have the option to do so.

Stores will also have the flexibility to double-down on encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags, meaning some businesses may also charge a fee for paper bags.

Super One Foods, for example, have point-of-sale toppers at their Plaza location in East Hillside explaining that they will be charging the ordinance-mandated 5-cent fee for plastic bags, but they will also be charging a 5-cent surcharge for paper bags; which is not mandated by the city's ordinance.

TSM Duluth
TSM Duluth

While not mandated by the ordinance, this measure does further enforce the goal of the ordinance, which is to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.

What is exempt as part of the bag ordinance?

The city's website does specify specific exemptions to the plastic bag fee, noting the following instances where a fee is not required:

  • Bags without handles used exclusively to carry produce, meats, other food items, or merchandise to the point of sale within a store
  • Bags provided by pharmacists to contain prescription drugs
  • Bags used to transport take-out foods and prepared liquids intended for consumption away from the retail establishment
  • Newspaper bags, door-hanger bags, dry-cleaning bags, bags used to protect fine art paper
  • Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pet waste, or yard waste bags
  • Bags made out of paper

A couple of other key exemptions include:

  • Not-for-profit organizations, food banks, and other food assistance programs are not considered to be retail establishments under the ordinance.
  • Anyone using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program is exempt from the ordinance.

Where does money generated by the bag fee go?

They city's website says "All money raised from this fee is kept by retailers to offset the cost of bags and other costs related to this fee."

Why not just ban plastic bags?

The ordinance FAQ page speaks to the decision to impose a fee, rather than ban plastic bags completely. They explain that the Minnesota Legislature passed a measure in 2017 that prohibits local governments from banning plastic bags.

That legislation does not, however, prevent cities and counties from implementing fee-based charges like this one Duluth is imposing or like the similarly-structured ordinance in Minneapolis - which goes even further and imposes a 5-cent fee for all single-use bags, including paper bags.

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