Laramie begins effort to reduce or ban plastic bag use

LARAMIE — The Laramie City Council largely supported the first step in a likely multi-year long process to reduce and potentially ban retail-use plastic bags.

The council voted unanimously during its meeting Tuesday to approve a resolution “to diminish and regulate retail-use plastic bag waste within the city.”

The resolution formalized the council’s desire to create and implement a 12-18-month education program to reduce plastic bag usage, which would start later this summer.

Once the education component is complete, the council will use data collected during the education campaign to consider whether an ordinance implementing a plastic bag fee or even a full plastic bag ban is necessary or desired.

Starting with the budgetary process this spring, the council will hammer out details on what the education initiative will look like, whether additional staff will need to be hired and, ultimately, what it will all cost.

Additionally, any details on a potential fee on retail-use plastic bags — the ones commonly given to customers to hold purchased groceries — as well as where that fee revenue would go will be decided by the council once the educational component is complete in 2021 or 2022.

“Any adoption of a fee, when that takes place, will go through a process for the public to have that input and discussion with the council,” Councilman Paul Weaver said. “There will be an ample public participation piece to that fee adoption when we get to considering it.”

Beyond global plastic pollution concerns, Laramie has had its own plastic bag issues. Public Works director Brooks Webb told the council during a December work session about the issue that city staff spends the equivalent of an additional full-time job each year in staff hours picking up litter, roughly 20% of which is plastic bags that blow away from the landfill with Laramie’s notorious winds.

Although the council was overwhelmingly supportive of the educational component, some had reserves about going much further.

Not sure whether she’d support a fee, Councilwoman Jessica Stalder said a two-year education initiative would “not only let us get accustomed to it but also for the businesses, to see what they come up with.”

Councilman Bryan Shuster, whose family formerly owned a grocery store that started a bag recycling program in Laramie, said it was about getting the community, not the council, on board with the habit changes and potential fee.

“That’s our biggest problem,” he said. “It's not that we don’t support it, it’s trying to get the community to buy in.”

Shumway also noted the need for the community to participate, saying reducing bags “truly does beautify our community once we get that under control.” He added the educational aspect was key to ensure the city was “going to get this right.”

So far it sounds like the community is on board; Trey Campbell, director of governmental and community affairs with the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, said the current student government administration made sustainability one of their campaign platforms and would love to assist the city in its efforts.

“We also think it’s a unique opportunity within student government for us to be a piece of the education program to specifically target college students,” he said. “A lot of them are shopping by themselves for the first time, so you have the opportunity not to change habits but create habits.”

He added even as the current ASUW administration’s term ends with the school year, he expected future students to want to get involved. In fact, other students made public comments in support of the measure on Tuesday.

The city’s unanimous vote to pursue the conservation objective mirrors that of the Laramie Youth Council, which also unanimously approved a pitch to try to ban or place a fee on plastic bags as one of its initiatives for the year.

During a Dec. 10 work session outlining potential plastic bag measures, LYC member Owen Reese recommended the council adopt a $0.15 fee per bag at stores, much like a $0.20 fee currently used in Jackson, to deter the use of plastic bags.

Jackson is one of an increasing number of cities and countries throughout the world that has implemented a measure to reduce or outright ban plastic bag waste.

Reese said Tuesday he hoped Laramie wouldn’t be too late to join in the movement.

“If this is going to take 18 months or two years, I urge you guys to fast track that because two years might be too late,” Reese urged the council. “I know the Legislation process is lengthy, it takes time, but speed it up.”

Other members of the public agreed the city was not implementing a potential fee or even an outright ban soon enough.

Laramie resident Emily Stanton said she has seen enough plastic waste in Spring Creek during each spring’s Community Clean-Up Day to know it’s an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

“When I heard that the thought is two years of an education plan and then two years of working with a fee before we move to a bag ban, my heart broke a little bit,” she said. “I would say don’t underestimate the Laramie public on this.”

She added implementing a ban or fee sooner could attract new residents and businesses to Laramie who are appreciative of the city’s efforts to become more environmentally friendly.

Weaver pointed out while the city must go through a sometimes lengthy process with multiple opportunities for public and local business input to get things done the right way, that doesn’t mean people can’t start the movement now by changing habits and educating their neighbors.

City Manager Janine Jordan also noted the desire to move a little slower to be cognizant of how large of an educational effort it could be, especially considering current staffing levels at the city's Solid Waste Division.

Additionally, city staff needs time to gather any relevant data and to include local businesses and the public in the effort before rushing too quickly into potential fees and other regulatory measures.

Retail use plastic bags are largely considered single-use, but many stores in Laramie have drop-off areas to recycle them.