Plastic bag fees spawn Michigan political fight

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican lawmakers and grocery store owners want to dispose of a fledgling movement in Michigan that would charge retailers and customers for every carryout plastic and paper bag they use.

Plastic and plastic bags are cleared out of the material customers considered recyclable at the Resource, Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County in Southfield. The bags can gum up the machinery.

Washtenaw County commissioners prompted the backlash in June after approving a carryout bag ordinance that would charge 10 cents for every plastic and paper bag used at grocery stores, restaurants and retail outlets. The county officials said they wanted to give consumers and businesses an incentive to eliminate what they call unnecessary waste.

Anticipating the fee or tax, the GOP-controlled Senate approved legislation in May that would bar local governments from adopting such fees or bans of plastic bags and other packaging containers. The Senate voted 25-12 with almost uniform support among Republicans and opposition from Democrats.

A House panel approved the bill Tuesday, paving the way for consideration by the full Republican-controlled state House.

Washtenaw County, home to the liberal mecca of Ann Arbor, is the only local government in Michigan to adopt such a fee, though the county has delayed enforcing it until Earth Day in April 2017 to see what the state Legislature does. No local community has banned plastic bags.

Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists argue that communities should be allowed to exercise local control as they try to improve their environments.

“We’re denying political choice,” said Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak. “We’re denying people at the local level to enact legislation that they believe in.”

Republican lawmakers and industry representatives counter that such local ordinances create a “patchwork” of regulations that increase costs and make it more difficult for chains and franchises to comply with differing requirements across the state.

“Anytime you start to see a patchwork approach ... it creates another level of complexity that we just don’t necessarily think is the government’s responsibility to be doing,” said Robert O’Meara, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association.

The argument for local control is a smoke screen for what really is “a money grab,” said Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Linden, chairman of the House committee that approved the Senate bill.

Environmentalists for years have argued against the ills of plastic bags. They say the bags never fully degrade, but instead turn into smaller fragments that leach into local waterways and get gobbled up by unsuspecting fish on the prowl for real food.

The bags also are causing trouble for large-scale recycling facilities with big conveyer belts because they gum up the machinery, forcing workers to spend hours prying them off.

Repairing machinery costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars” annually when factoring in labor, the cost of cleaning machinery, lost productivity and expenses related to throwing away the bags, said Mike Csapo, general manager for a large recycling facility known as the Resource, Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County in Southfield.

Plastic bags costs add up

Plastic bags are not recyclable at curb-side programs. They instead have to be taken to special facilities.

Plastic bags also degrade the final product, a giant cube that recycling facilities sell to other companies, Csapo said. The bags can cost “tens of thousands” of dollars lost in product value, said Csapo, who did not have a position on the Washtenaw fee or the ban bill.

The cost for recycling facilities stripping bags from machinery was a major reason why commissioners approved the ordinance, said Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, a Democrat who voted for the ordinance. The bags cost the county about $220,000 a year when all the associated costs are accounted for, he said.

“This isn’t supposed to be a revenue source for the county,” Rabhi said about the fee, adding that he hopes it will encourage people to tote their own reusable bags to the checkout lane.

Rabhi said he would be disappointed if the state House approves and Gov. Rick Snyder signs into law the Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, because they would be “treading on the rights of local government.” The Republican Party also would not be “living up to its own ideals” of advocating local control, he said.

Recyclables sorted by customers arrive Sept. 15 at the Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County. Plastic bags are not recyclable at curb-side programs. They have to be taken to special facilities.

Fee seen as financial burden

But Republican lawmakers argue it is unwise to impose a financial burden on businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers.

The bill would eliminate a potential “patchwork” of differing laws across the state and stop local governments from imposing “a financial burden on businesses,” said Graves, adding that he has enough support in committee to approve the legislation for a full House vote.

While he supports local control in most instances, this fee doesn’t apply, he said. “It’s just not a local control issue,” Graves aid. “They’re trying to use that ... in an effort to get a money grab.”

Environmental organizations like the Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan League for Conservation Voters oppose the bill, arguing it would stop local governments from adopting policies to protect the environment at a time when the state doesn’t seem interested.

But retailers argue that it imposes an unnecessary cost on businesses. Stores already promote recycling and encourage customers to buy reusable bags, according to the Michigan Retailers Association.

Shoppers who don’t want to pay extra bag fees often switch to thicker plastic or paper bags, which take more energy to produce, are costlier and generate more waste and greenhouse gases, the industry argues.

“I think it depends on the customer,” said Amy Drumm, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association. But many consumers “may not be able to afford the reusable bag. ... It really depends on your customer and what they want to do.”

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