The 5-cent Debate: Eugene’s plastic bag ban

“That will be 5 cent per bag charge sir,” the register clerk told Tyree Johnson at the end of his weekly trip to Safeway supermarket in Eugene.

Johnson was puzzled by the employee’s comment. He thought maybe he bought something in particular that required an extra charge.

Unaware of Eugene’s recently passed plastic bag ban, Johnson was not only hearing about the new law, but also experiencing it first hand.

“I was just kind of taken back,” Johnson said. “I already get stressed shopping on a budget, so it was disheartening to hear I had to pay an additional fee once I got to the register.”

The 21-year-old is your typical struggling young adult. As a recent high school graduate, Johnson has been going full throttle into adult life working a part time job, attending classes and learning how to balance his budget. Johnson has found his sudden entry into adulthood to not be an easy transition, especially when it comes to the simple life task of buying food.

However, as a long time Eugene native, Johnson has found that trips to Eugene’s grocery stores has become more of a costly process due to the city’s new ban on plastic bags. Johnson receives government aid to help him purchase food.

“It was certainly frustrating at first,” Johnson said. “I go to the store and must figure out how to budget my money, get to the register and I am then told I need to pay a fee per bag.”

On May 1, in order to encourage the use of reusable bags, the ordinance called for a ban of single-use plastic carryout bags within city limits. All retail businesses, including grocery stores, department and clothing stores, convenience stores, and local markets located within the City of Eugene are required to provide only recycled paper bags or reusable bags as carryout bags for customers. Eugene joins other Oregon cities participating in the ban such as Corvallis and Portland, as well as major cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin.

This in turn, led to many grocery stores charging a 5 cent per bag fee for those customers who wanted to paper bags. In addition, the 5 cent charge goes directly back to the retailer. Although this may seem like a minimal change, for people concerned about finances it may come across as somewhat alarming.

However, some cities partaking in the ban do not require people on food stamps to pay the fee, and according to Eugene’s local paper, the Register-Guard, not until this past week has the issue been presented and discussed at Eugene City Council meetings.

This controversy has sparked a new debate in the already heavily deliberated plastic bag ban.

Johnson said he is not alone in frustration for the new policy and that often when he is checking out people are upset to hear that they will be charged.

According to the Eugene City Council, residents use an estimated 67 million single-use plastic carryout bags each year. The city agrees that single-use plastic carryout bags may offer short-term convenience, but officials also argue that have long-term costs in terms of litter and impact on wildlife and the environment.

“We recognize that we are near water life and wildlife and people are socially conscious to help the environment,” Stephanie Scafa said, a zero waste analyst for the city of Eugene.

Complaints were also heard when the ordinance was first brought up to Eugene’s city council ranging from how the ban would affect commence in Eugene to inconvenience of customers.

“There were a variety of different criticisms with the new policy, but the main one was the possible negative effect for businesses in Eugene,” Scafa said. “But I personally think that is a silly argument. You will spend the money to drive to Springfield for a free plastic bag? The gas money would cost the same.”

Scafa said that through surveys the city tried to address all the concerns.

The surveys showed that 56.1 percent of Eugene residents already use a reusable bag when they go shopping. The alternative of buying a reusable bag is not always the best financially, especially if a person needs to buy many for multiple items. The average reusable bag is sold for anywhere from $0.99 to $3.00.

Although Scafa stated that their city’s website provides information about the best way to be eco-friendly, as well as tips on how to make the best transition into the new ban.

“On our website or if anyone contacts us, we provide all the information they need. We can let people know if people are giving away plastic bags or have free or discounted reusable bags,” Scafa said.

In addition, businesses do have option to apply for a one-year exemption from the ordinance requirements due to hardships. However, the exemption expires on April 30, 2014.

The Smith Family Bookstore, located in downtown Eugene, is one of the 10 businesses that was granted an exemption.

“It seemed pretty easy to get an exemption,” said Cody Mendoca, an employee at the Smith Family Bookstore. “We just wrote a letter.”

The Smith Family Bookstore had a large amount of plastic bags and wanted to use them instead of wasting them.

Mendoca says that often customers don’t notice that they still have plastic bags, but sometimes a few customers will ask why they are not following the new law.

Mendoca believes that once the exemption is over the store plans on offering the acceptable plastic bags, which are made of durable plastic (4 millimeters or thicker), as well as just giving out less bags.

Ultimately, there is a non-compliance fee for establishments that do not follow the rule.

“If we get complaints from citizens that are aware of the law, it usually only takes a phone call to that business to clarify what the law is,” Scafa said. “There really haven’t been too many complaints so far.”

But, recent complaints mentioned at city council meetings prove otherwise. It’s apparent that the fee is a potential problem for low-income residents and families.

The council is scheduled to discuss the issue again on July 8.

Plastic bags are recently being saved by shoppers since the ban.

Plastic bags are recently being saved by shoppers since the ban.

 

Smith Family Bookstore

Smith Family Bookstore

 

Smith Family Bookstore

Smith Family Bookstore

“I understand the important in helping the environment, and I understand that the charge may not be a big deal to some people,” Johnson said. “But for me, money is tight, and that’s just the issue.”

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