Jackson’s bag ban to expand to smaller businesses

JACKSON — Since Jackson’s grocers and major retailers moved their last plastic bags in April, the hundreds of smaller businesses throughout town have been exempt from the ban that rid the largest stores of single-use sacks.

No longer.

Next Friday, Nov. 1, will bring the second chapter of the plastic bag ban, extending it to all businesses. The seven stores included in the initial ban were responsible for the vast majority of plastic bag output, but another 200 or so will fall under this next wave of enforcement.

Officials say phase one has been smooth going, as customers adjusted to the new reality either by bringing their own bags or purchasing paper ones for 20 cents apiece. But with small retailers more dispersed around town, and a different set of shopping habits to accommodate, phase two presents new challenges.

“This is a whole new ball park,” said Carrie Bell, outreach coordinator with Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling, whose average work day for the past year has been mostly consumed by managing the bag ban rollout and education efforts.

“I’m a little nervous, for sure,” she said. “But I think we have a lot going for us.”

One of the main differences this time around, Bell observed, “is our brains haven’t quite caught up to taking a reusable bag when we do any kind of shopping.”

Many people were already in the habit of bringing them to Albertsons or Smith’s Food and Drug before the ban, and many more have adopted the new grocery store routine, she said. But it may not be so intuitive to plan ahead on other shopping expeditions.

For example, Bell said, “Stopping at Made on your way home maybe seems more spontaneous.” With that in mind, Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling aims to spark a behavioral transformation in Jackson residents and tourists.

“Now,” Bell said, “your checklist should be: You’ve got your keys, you’ve got your phone, you’ve got your wallet, you’ve got your reusable bag. Now you can go.”

Besides Solid Waste’s own advertising, Bell has created a “retailer toolkit” with answers to frequently asked questions to help employees explain the ban, as well as informational fliers and door signs, all available in printed form at Town Hall or online at RoadToZeroWasteJH.org/plasticbaginfo.

Because the first phase involved only a few commercial hubs, volunteers were able to hand out free reusable bags “almost to the point where people said, ‘I do not need any more of your bags, please stop,’” Bell said with a laugh.

With small businesses so scattered, that won’t be possible this time (though volunteers do hope to distribute bags at the airport over the holidays). However, Solid Waste, in partnership with the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, purchased 15,000 reusable bags bearing the “Stay Wild” logo.

They’ll distribute 50 to any business that wants them as a “tool they can use to help them have a soft landing,” Bell said.

Then there’s the tourist dilemma. With a never-ending flow of new visitors, it’s not as simple as waiting for the local population to become saturated with reusable bags.

But Assistant Public Works Director Johnny Ziem, who researched bag bans across the country to craft the town’s ordinance, said such laws are becoming common in many resort towns. Even a handful of states, including California and New York, have banned single-use bags.

Nevertheless, some merchants were wary of the change, arguing it would create an undue burden for small businesses that use relatively few bags. For convenience, many order months or even years of bags at a time.

Jeff Roush, owner of Wyoming Outfitters, said he still has 11,000 bags — worth $5,000, he estimated — that will become a fineable offense in a week.

“That’s quite a hardship for a small business like ourselves,” he said when he asked the Town Council on Monday to allow him and his peers to use up their stock.

“We’ve got bags that we need to get rid of, and just to throw them away seems like a waste,” Roush said. “Kind of flies in the face of what the bag ban is about.”

The town has no plans to change the requirements of the ordinance. But Bell doesn’t want the bags thrown away either, and she plans to spend all of Nov. 1 driving around to collect excess from businesses that want to offload their stock to county recyclers.

Anyone interested can text 307-200-9308, and Bell will coordinate the pickup. She realizes she may be signing herself up to field dozens or scores of requests throughout the day.

“Honestly, I hope so,” she said. “I hope I’m crazy busy all day. That’s what I want.”

She’s received questions from a smattering of businesses, and has been surprised at the dearth of negative feedback. Ziem agreed — when he spent a day walking around downtown, talking to business owners about the ban, he said, “I think generally people seemed pretty excited.”

Bell noted that this part of the ban aligns with Jackson’s shoulder season, giving businesses an easy few weeks, and even the relatively slow winter months, to fine-tune their strategy before next summer.

The first quarter of paper bag fees (the only one so far reported) brought in about $11,500 for the county, surprisingly close to their “guesstimate.” But officials have always said it’s not about the money — paper bags pose their own environmental problems, so the more shoppers who get on board with reusable bags, the better.

For now, the income is split evenly between the businesses that charge it and Solid Waste, which uses its portion to fund bag ban education efforts. If the money does dwindle, Bell said, that will be a sign that the education has succeeded, at which point businesses may be able to keep the full 20 cents.

“I genuinely hope that it gets lower and lower and lower,” Bell said. “To the point where we don’t see any money, is the ideal.”