Around her neighborhood, they call former Kansas City councilwoman Joanne Collins “the picker upper.”
She loathes litter. Especially those plastic shopping bags that flutter from tree branches and cling to sewer grates.
“I leaped up and got one off an awning once,” said Collins, a passionate environmentalist who says she’d welcome a ban on the plastic bags that merchants hand out by the billions.
“Kansas City needs to do it.”
Several nations and scores of U.S. cities, including Chicago and Seattle, have done just that in recent years. Next July, a statewide ban takes effect in California.
However, no bag restrictions are on the books hereabouts, despite some false starts. As a result, shoppers return home with millions of single-use bags every year, ignoring many retailers’ offer to pay a nickel for each reusable cloth bag brought into the store.
But that lack of action could start to change in the months ahead if bag restrictions gain a foothold in Prairie Village.
Officials there are considering whether to outlaw plastic grocery bags, or impose a fee on both plastic and paper bags to encourage the use of reusable canvas totes.
The citizens advisory committee studying the issue could also drop the idea, but for now that doesn’t seem likely.
“We are finding a lot of support,” environment committee chairman Ben Claypool said.
Should Prairie Village enact bag restrictions, it would be a first for Kansas and the metro area.
Roeland Park spent three years studying the issue but dropped plans to pass an ordinance in 2013, fearing a costly legal battle. The plastic bag industry has spent millions trying to defeat bag bans in other parts of the country.
“It was pretty devastating after all the work we’d done on it to have it come to a halt,” said Roeland Park City Councilwoman Megan England.
Garden City, Kan., too, took up and dropped the issue, despite concerns from ranchers that their cattle get plugged up from eating plastic bags caught on fence posts and barbed wire.
Missouri has no restrictions, either. A bill introduced in the general assembly in 2009 died in committee.
But this fall, Columbia began considering an ordinance that would prohibit bags being given away by anyone selling perishable food products, such as supermarkets and discount stores that sell groceries.
“I want to say the chances of it passing are really good,” said Jan Dye, chairwoman of the local Sierra Club, which initiated the proposal. “But I’m just not sure.”
And it will likely be months before she finds out.
Paper or plastic? That all-too-familiar question at the checkout counter has been with us since the late 1960s, when the now ubiquitous, two-handled plastic shopping bag came into being.
Over the ensuing decades, merchants and shoppers alike have come to prefer cheaper plastic bags over brown paper sacks. They also take up less space and, according to some, are easier to tote.
Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are handed out every year. Some point out they are used more than once by people who line their trash cans with them or pick up pet waste.
But there is only so much dog doo and used cat litter to convey. Most plastic bags are wadded up and tossed in the garbage, even the most ardent defenders of plastic bags concede.
That is despite the fact that, according to the plastic bag manufacturing industry, 90 percent of the American public has access to recycling options for plastic bags.
Depending on the community, the percentage of bags recycled ranges from the single digits to the mid teens. Before the ban in Seattle, for instance, only 13 percent of the 292 million bags handed out to shoppers annually were recycled.
“Americans use on average nearly one plastic bag each day,” says the left-leaning Earth Policy Institute, “taking something made from fossil fuels formed over millions of years and generally using it for mere minutes before throwing it away.”
In addition to filling up landfills and being a source of litter, the bags all too often find their way from storm sewers to the ocean where sea turtles mistake them for tasty jelly fish.
Bag restrictions began to pop up in the early 2000s here and abroad. Within a year of imposing a bag fee in 2002, Ireland saw a sharp increase in the number of people switching to reusables.
San Francisco, in 2007, became the first major U.S. city to initiate a ban on plastic grocery bags. Now the ban applies to virtually all retail uses.
In addition, merchants there are required to charge 10 cents for other bags they hand out, such as plastic bags that are certified compostable (most plastic bags aren’t), bags made out of recycled paper and reusable bags designed for at least 125 uses and are washable.
Many other cities on the West Coast have adopted similar restrictions since then. Elsewhere, several states and local governments have taken steps short of outright bans aimed at reducing plastic bag use, or are considering them.
Most notably, the District of Columbia saw a 60 percent reduction in consumers’ use of plastic bags after a 5-cent fee was imposed in 2010. Up to two-thirds of the money collected goes to the merchants, and the rest goes to a watershed cleanup fund.
Kansas City political consultant Marcus Leach had something similar in mind this year when he began making plans for a possible ballot issue here.
It, too, would have called for a 5-cent charge for each disposable bag, with the proceeds going for neighborhood beautification or to support curbside recycling.
“Unfortunately, the polling came back and said Kansas City is not ready for it yet,” Leach said. Percentage-wise, support “came back in the low 40s.”
While favoring either a bag tax or an outright ban, local environmental groups haven’t made it a focus of their efforts.
Bridging the Gap, which operates recycling centers and heads the Keep Kansas City Beautiful anti-litter campaign, has its hands full with a lot of other issues, executive director Kristin Riott says.
Same goes for Vicki Richmond at the Healthy Rivers Partnership, who says plastic bags are a major source of litter in and along area streams. Yet even she sometimes forgets and leaves her cloth bags in the car when she goes into the store.
“But I find what they’re doing in Prairie Village exciting,” she said.
So far they haven’t done much, but they’re working on it. Last week, the environmental committee began setting up appointments with retailers for next month to get their opinions.
Chances are, they won’t be positive.
“No one likes to have litter around,” says Jon McCormick, president of the Retail Grocers Association of Greater Kansas City. But he says there are more pressing environmental issues that need addressing.
“We would be opposed to banning plastic,” he said.
Likewise, the ban-the-bag effort in Columbia is facing opposition.
In an op-ed published in The Columbia Tribune last week, the president of the Missouri Retailers Association said a ban would take away consumer choices, be a burden on business and not be that big of a boon to the environment.
“Their carbon footprint is lower than other bags,” wrote David Overfelt, “they require less water to make and those that do end up in landfills have often been reused as waste bags and take up significantly less space than other bag options.”
The industry-supported American Progressive Bag Alliance says people should be free to make their own choices. Imposing fees on paper or plastic, the group say, is an unfair tax on consumers.
“It’s a scam that will take billions of dollars from California taxpayers to line the pockets of grocers,” alliance chairman Mark Daniels told the Los Angeles Times in a prepared statement as the group mounts a petition drive to repeal the law in that state.
The industry also funds aggressive public relations campaigns to oppose bans.
Whatever direction Prairie Village and Columbia decide, it’s been proven that banning plastic bags alone won’t change people’s habits.
Only a small percentage of shoppers in Santa Fe, N.M., switched to reusable bags when that city’s plastic bag ban went into effect nearly a year ago. The reason for that, a study concluded, is that a 10-cent fee for paper sacks was cut before final passage.
“Without any disincentive to use paper bags, the effectiveness of the ordinance is clearly compromised,” it said.
Where bag bans have worked best, a fee on paper sacks has been imposed.
For now in Kansas City, plastic bags remain the go-to conveyance for schlepping groceries — at least judging by the traffic coming out of the Price Chopper in Brookside the other morning,
Only one out of 10 shoppers gripped a reusable cloth bag. More common were guys like Jim LeCluyse, whose shopping cart was laden with a dozen white, plastic bags.
Normally he uses cloth bags, pointing to a nest of them on the floor of his minivan. But he also has pets and felt the need to stock up on plastic bags.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said of the bag bans some places have in effect. “But what would I do about my cat litter box and cleaning up after the dog?”
In places where the bans have passed, environmentalists say, somehow pet owners get by.
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.