The War on Bags: A year into Ashland’s 10 cent ordinance
It’s been over a year since the City of Ashland put into effect an ordinance banning plastic and requiring businesses to charge for paper bags. For many, this is old news. Some residents don’t worry about the dime they are charged for a paper bag, an incentive to encourage shoppers to bring their own. Some are more diligent about carrying reusable sacks, and even others can be seen precariously balancing a pile of groceries out the door. Ultimately, the goal of the ordinance is to reduce waste and conserve resources.
According to Adam Hanks from the City of Ashland, the biggest improvement by far has indeed been a “significant decrease in paper bag usage at all of the major grocery stores.”
Waste and litter evaluation of this sort is not new on the national or state scene, as entire states like Hawaii have banned plastic bags and a patchwork of California jurisdictions as well. Ashland’s specific ordinance was modeled after a similar one in Eugene, which was established in May 2013. The City of Eugene has also banned plastic and charges a five-cent paper bag fee. Michael Wisth, Green Building Analyst for the City of Eugene, says that “overall, the bag ban has been a great success” for Eugene. He states that complaints about the program are minimal, compliance has not proven to be any great challenge, and there is a noted reduction of waste.
But the benefits have not been embraced by everyone; in particular, some small businesses have maneuvered in slight ways around the ordinance, but in ways that have caused a bit of a tempest in an independent store teapot.
Perhaps, as a consumer, as you make your way down Siskiyou Boulevard, away from the larger establishments and into the largely independent businesses of downtown, you’ve noticed a shift: a dish of dimes by the register, a cashier waiving the charge, or perhaps no mention of the fee at all. Though there seems to be a unanimous adoption of the plastic ban, the ten cent charge is a point of contention among some businesses, especially higher-end specialty shops as well as those who see a larger amount of tourist traffic.
Under the City of Ashland’s ordinance, there are two main requirements for Ashland businesses providing recycled paper bags to their customers: charge a minimum ten-cent “pass-through” cost and itemize this cost on the receipt. The dime is not a tax: the City doesn’t collect this fee, but rather suggests it will help cover the potential added cost for businesses to comply with the paper bag requirements (which state that they “must contain at least 40 percent post consumer recycled content”) as well as help consumers transition to increased use of reusable bags going forward.
Still, some businesses are uncomfortable with asking for and keeping the dime.
Brian Beels of Unicorn Gifts and Toys points out that they already have been using paper bags for the 27 years they have been doing business in Ashland and have no intention of asking their customers to absorb that cost or feel guilty about taking the bag. “I don’t want customers to see us as greedy,” he said. “We don’t want the stigma of keeping that ten cents.”
Among Beels’ concerns about the ordinance are worries that this will discourage shoppers from the rest of the Rogue Valley as well as tourists visiting from beyond it. One of Beels’ customers went so far as to point out that the bag charge is one more good reason to shop online, which takes money out of the local economy and increases waste via shipping materials.
Despite Beels’ objections, he’s still on board with the message behind the ordinance if not its method. While he refers to the ten-cent charge as “hand-slapping,” he explains his own approach to raising awareness about waste and empowering his customers to make a decision at the register: the simple phrase “do you need a bag” raises the issue without said slap.
What about compliance? Unicorn Gifts is one of many downtown businesses not taking the dime. Hanks points out that “the bag ban and ten cent fee is an ordinance, which means that it is part of the City’s municipal code and is basically local law so compliance is expected and citations are the primary legal method for ensuring compliance.”
Beels’ answer? The ordinance states that businesses have to charge the dime and record it on the receipt, which they do. They also issue a ten-cent refund on the same transaction. “Nothing in the ordinance says we can’t just give the dime right back.”
Some businesses are complying to the letter while some are thinking creatively about how to comply: no matter the approach, bag waste is certainly a continued topic of conversation around town, which ideally means heightened awareness about why this matters in the first place.
As the City steps into year two of the bag ordinance, they are beginning to evaluate both effectiveness and compliance, as well as “addressing how the ten cent fee impacts specialty retail stores differently than the grocery and local goods businesses,” adds Hanks. Earlier this year, the City conducted a survey to gauge the first year of the ordinance in place, followed by a letter to all businesses offering updated signs and requesting compliance.
“We have provided new signage materials designed for the specialty retail businesses to help with the continued transition and we have taken an educational approach to compliance for the first year. Now that we are in our second year, we will be handling compliance as we would any other ordinance on the books, which is still very much communication and problem solving based before resorting to citations.”