Grand Rapids first Minnesota city to enter plastic bag fray

Earlier this week Grand Rapids became the first Minnesota locality to take a stand against plastic shopping bags, when the City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging citizens to “work toward decreasing their consumption of plastic bags” by instead shopping with reusable bags.

A plastic bag along Park Point on Lake Superior in Duluth. (photo courtesy of Shawna MullenEardley)

The council did not impose a ban or fee on plastic bags, something dozens of cities and even countries, from Los Angeles to Portland to Washington, D.C., have done.

Pat Helmberger with the local group Earth Circle, which pushed the ordinance, said they wanted to take a more positive approach.

“We thought that was a good place to start to get the city council behind us,” she said. “We’ll use that resolution to encourage owners of stores to push reusable bags. We think people here are intelligent people. We’re just depending on the goodwill of the people here.”

Whether goodwill is enough to change behavior remains to be seen.

Wayne Gjerde, Recycling Market Development Coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, says Grand Rapids’ action is the first official city resolution in Minnesota he’s heard of addressing plastic bag use.

Statewide, Gjerde says about 193,000 tons of “film” plastic are thrown away each year. About 35 percent of that – roughly 68,000 tons – is made up by plastic shopping bags. Nationwide, an estimated 380 billion plastic bags are used each year.

In Duluth, a group called Bag It! Duluth has been working to build community support for more than a year to reduce plastic bag use. Shawna MullenEardley, who’s spearheaded the effort, supports charging a small fee for every plastic bag used. She says communities that have adopted bans or fees report an immediate “difference in the amount of plastic bags flying around.”

City Council member Emily Larson is gauging the community’s appetite for action on the issue. She says most places that have adopted plastic bag policies are coastal cities, so it makes sense that Duluth would explore a policy to help protect Lake Superior’s waters.

Larson says she was amazed after they screened the documentary Bag It! in Duluth to receive first a phone call and then a visit from a plastic bag lobbyist. She says whatever Duluth decides to do, it’s clear “this is an issue that will inspire debate, very quickly.”