A proposed ban on single-use plastic bags will come before the Salem City Council later this month amid a broader push to increase environmental protections across the city.
Councilors will consider the ban at their Aug. 27 meeting.
But local grocers warn that if customers aren't required to pay a 5-cent fee for recyclable paper bags, they could be forced to raise prices at Salem stores to offset costs. Paper bags cost retailers significantly more than plastic.
Salem would become one of the latest cities to adopt a ban on plastic grocery bags, joining places like Portland and Corvallis.
Environmental activists argue plastic bags harm the Earth and wildlife. Sea turtles find it virtually impossible to tell the difference between plastic bags from jellyfish, according to the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Garten Services is a major recycling service provider in Salem. Chief Operating Officer Will Posegate said they are against any plastic bags coming into their system. The bags can wrap around equipment in the same way as fishing line.
"We don't want them whatsoever, period," Posegate said.
Posegate said the bags should be returned to where customers obtain them. Some grocery stores offer customers collection boxes where they can deposit clean, used plastic bags.
Customers should not be afraid to ask for paper, he said. But Posegate also said people should buy a reusable bag.
Councilor Tom Andersen, speaking by phone from a family reunion in Colorado, said the proposed ban was originally supposed to come before councilors at their Aug. 13 meeting, but staff needed more time to prepare it.
The move comes after councilors in May directed staff members to research and draft a proposed ban. Councilor Brad Nanke was the sole "no" vote.
Salem's proposed ban could impose at least a 5-cent charge per recyclable paper bag at stores when customers fail to bring their own bags.
Andersen said part of the fee is to encourage people to bring their own, and part of it is to reimburse the store for complying with the ordinance.
Industry insiders have urged Salem officials to look to an ordinance adopted in 2017 in McMinnville as they craft a proposal.
In a June letter to city councilors, Michael Roth, president and CEO of Roth's Fresh Markets, said his company does not oppose a ban on plastic bags.
However, Roth stressed the importance of a fee to offset the cost of paper bags, which are about three times more expensive than their plastic counterparts.
Roth said McMinnville's ordinance, which calls for a 5-cent fee, is working well. The company's costs have gone up slightly, but Roth's still charges the same prices in McMinnville as in Salem, he said.
"However, if the 5-cent fee was not in place, our costs would increase between $35,000 and $40,000 a year per Salem store," Roth wrote. "These numbers would cause Roth's to raise shelf prices to cover this significant increase in expenses. Grocers work on such slim margins, I would suspect the other grocers in town would have to do the same."
Roth called the 5-cent fee "an incentive for consumers to bring their own reusable bags, or reuse paper bags." He said he opposed adding another 5-cent-per-bag fee, which would bring the total to 10 cents a bag. Roth could not be reached by phone Tuesday for comment.
Ryan Zink, Salem's franchise administrator, said Salem officials are modeling their ordinance on McMinnville's. "Staff is continuing to draft the language for an ordinance," he said.
Salem shoppers have been generally receptive to the proposal. "I would support (a plastic bag ban) entirely," said Barbara Holland at the Fred Meyer in South Salem. "I know they are filling up our landfills, and for five cents, we can bring in the reusable bags."
A ban "wouldn't really bother me at all," said Armando Martinez, who was with his daughter Zoë. "We pay a tax already on plastic bottles, so it wouldn't really be different."
Customers in Oregon pay a 10-cent deposit on cans and bottles, which they can get back if they return the containers to bottle drop locations.
Salem officials last year included environmental sustainability in a city strategic plan, which will guide city efforts in coming years.
One of the goals was to "develop a climate action plan that prioritizes reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in collaboration with our local utilities, state agencies and educational institutions."
Andersen said, "The bag ban is kind of low-hanging fruit." Plastic bag pollution is something that people can take notice of more easily than greenhouse gases, he said.
Meanwhile, Councilor Sally Cook is looking for Salem to take a more systematic, "zero waste" approach. Zero waste refers generally to more comprehensive actions that, for instance, encourage producers to reduce waste as a product is designed, according to the United States Conference of Mayors.
With less systematic efforts, Cook said, "we’re just nibbling away at the edges on these things."
—Anna Reed of the Statesman Journal contributed reporting.
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