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Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon wants a 5-cent tax on plastic, paper bags

Will this year be the year Cam Gordon finally takes plastic bags out of the picture?

Will this year be the year Cam Gordon finally takes plastic bags out of the picture? Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon announced in March that he planned on redoubling his efforts on an old, thorny issue: getting Minneapolis to use fewer plastic and paper bags.

It’s a return to a fraught and hard-fought subject. In 2016, the city succeeded in adopting an all-out ban on plastic bags, but it got shot down at the state level one day before it was supposed to go into effect. (A budget bill effectively forbid bans of that kind.)

So this time, Gordon’s going for a more modest proposal – a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags. There would be exemptions, of course, like for people on food assistance programs.

Gordon tried something similar in 2017, but it was tabled due to a lack of “community engagement.” So, this time, he’s making a bigger effort. He circulated a survey among his constituents, and he’s planning a public forum on the subject this summer.

There are those who already have some less-than-complimentary feedback. Specifically the Minnesota Grocers Association, which has a hard time swallowing a proposal that would make stores tax something that's now free. President Jamie Pfuhl warned MN Watchdog that shoppers would clear out of Minneapolis and get their groceries in the suburbs, where they could double-bag everything without losing a dime.

Meanwhile, the American Progressive Bag Alliance – the lobbying arm of Big Plastic Bag – frets that a new age of reusable bags won’t be as environmentally friendly as people claim. It told Watchdog you have to fill a canvas tote more than 130 times in order to have a lower environmental impact than a plastic bag. 

Gordon says he’s committed to getting feedback, and that means from retail and grocery associations too, but he doesn’t think there’s anything he can change that will placate the Alliance or the Grocers Association. 

“I’m not expecting that everyone’s going to be happy or satisfied with it,” he says. But this is one small, easy step he can take to make a lot of his constituents happy. He regularly gets emails from residents with pictures of plastic bags caught in trees or washed up on the banks of the Mississippi, asking him when he’s going to do something about it.

More importantly, it’s one small, easy step he can take to help the environment. With a grain of salt, that is.

What the Alliance is saying about canvas totes is close to the truth: It takes a lot of reuses to make them more efficient than a plastic bag, which has a surprisingly low carbon footprint in comparison to most options. Studies have found that paper bags, which require cutting down trees and processing with a bunch of water, toxic chemicals, and factory machinery, are actually worse for the planet.

But those studies don’t take into account the thing that plastic bags do best: stick around. Companies the world over make something like 5 trillion of these bad boys a year. And every year, about 8 million metric tons of them – discarded and drifting along our lakes and rivers -- end up in the ocean. There, if they don’t immediately entangle an innocent dolphin, they degrade into toxic little plastic pieces and get eaten by fish and other wildlife.

We, in turn, sometimes eat and absorb the consequences. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and we dine on more than half of them. (Also, they've been found in most Great Lakes tapwater, and even beer.) We’re not yet sure what kind of an impact the slow accumulation of plastic into our system will have on our health, but we have some time to find out. It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to totally decompose.

Gordon is also biding his time to see what the legislature does. There are rumblings of the 2016 prohibition getting quashed this session, he says, and he’s perfectly willing to hold out and see if anything comes of it. It could be the tide is finally shifting.