Sioux City looks to bag paper and plastic

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Posted: Jun 12, 2014 5:00 AM
Sioux City looks to bag paper and plastic

By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES, Iowa — Paper or plastic? Shoppers in Sioux City may be hearing that question a lot less in the near future.

“We’re looking at all possible options to get people to use plastic bags less and reusable cloth bags more,” city environmental analyst Melissa Campbell told Iowa Watchdog.

In response to complaints about plastic shopping bags littering Sioux City, Mayor Bob Scott directed Campbell to begin developing plans to reduce the number of those bags.

Options range from imposing a fee on plastic shopping bags to banning the bags altogether.

But it’s not just plastic shopping bags the city has in its sights.

“Our hope is that people would use reusable shopping bags and not just switch to paper bags,” Campbell said. “We’ve talked about maybe having retailers implement a fee for paper bags to deter customers from using them, and to allow retailers to recoup their costs because paper bags are more expensive.”

PAPER OR PLASTIC OR NEITHER?  Sioux City is considering ways "to deter" people from using plastic and paper shopping bags.

PAPER OR PLASTIC OR NEITHER? Sioux City is considering ways “to deter” people from using plastic and paper shopping bags.

Paper bags cost retailers two to three times as much as plastic bags, depending on the size and style of the bags.

Paper bags also require more resources to produce than plastic bags, diminishing their value as an eco-friendly alternative.

That’s one of the reasons Campbell wants people to use reusable bags. One of possibilities under consideration is having Sioux City follow the example of Austin, Texas, and provide free reusable bags to people who can’t afford them.

“We’ve talked about somehow finding funds to do that,” Campbell said. “We may apply for a grant.”

Even free reusable bags come with an environmental cost, though. It’s estimated a reusable bag must be used at least 104 times before there is any environmental advantage shopping with it instead of a plastic bag. That’s because most reusable bags are manufactured in China and must be shipped across the Pacific.

While converting to reusable cloth bags would decrease the number of plastic bags littering Sioux City, it probably wouldn’t do much to decrease litter overall.

Campbell didn’t have an estimate of how much of Sioux City’s litter is made up of plastic shopping bags, but a 2009 study by the nonprofit Keeping America Beautiful found plastic bags of all kinds only account for 0.6 percent of litter nationwide.

Beyond the issue of litter, Campbell said the city was concerned about the low rate of recycling for plastic shopping bags.

“According the most recent figure from the EPA, only 6 percent of plastic bags are recycled,” said Campbell.

But just because bags aren’t being recycled doesn’t mean they aren’t being reused. The bags are commonly reused as trash bags or for other purposes.

“I think the reuse rate is pretty high,” Campbell said. “But those bags still end up in landfills and that’s a problem.”

If it’s a problem, it’s a very small problem. According to a study by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, plastic shopping bags make up only 0.3 percent of the state’s solid waste.

Campbell stressed the city’s plans are still in the earliest stages and nothing has been decided yet.

But Scott has expressed strong support for taking some sort of action to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags and the idea has support among members of city council as well.

Contact Paul Brennan at pbrennan@watchdog.org