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Washtenaw County to implement 10-cent grocery bag fee

Jun 2, 2016

Beginning on Earth Day next year (April 22, 2017), Washtenaw County residents might have to bring their own bags to grocery stores to avoid a 10-cent-per-bag fee approved by the county’s board of commissioners on Wednesday in a 6-2 vote.

The fee applies to all paper and plastic bags that grocery stores provide consumers at the checkout aisle.

But the new ordinance might never be implemented.

The State House is currently considering a measure already passed by the State Senate that would prohibit taxing bags at grocery stores across Michigan, which would nullify the local legislation.

Here's the description of Senate Bill 853:

A bill to preempt local ordinances regulating the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.

The county's fee is intended to reduce waste, and in doing so, cut into the $219,000 advocates say is spent every year as a result of processing plastic bags alone.

A report published by Washtenaw County says that at its recycling facilities, wear caused by processing plastic bags accounts for 25% of equipment repair costs.

That’s not entirely accurate, according to County Commissioner Dan Smith, R-Whitmore Lake. Though he said he supports efforts to reduce waste, Smith voted against the resolution, calling it “political posturing.”

“We don’t own the recycling facilities in question,” Smith said. “Those are owned by the City of Ann Arbor and the Western Washtenaw Recycling [Authority], so it’s not really any county tax dollars that are being impacted here. These aren’t our facilities, which was ostensibly one of the reasons for pursuing this.”

The county says over 200 communities around the country already have similar policies in effect, and used Los Angeles County in California as an example of a municipality that has seen sweeping success with bag restrictions. Smith said such comparisons should be a non-factor, adding that he’s not sure the county is on “firm legal ground” in enacting the fee.

“Counties in the Midwest are very unique,” Smith said. “We’re not a city, and we’re not a county west of the Mississippi. They have a lot more authority than counties in the Midwest.”

Environmental concerns were the driving force behind the resolution, but the local chapter of the Sierra Club didn’t officially lend its support before the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed the fee with a 6-2 vote.

“We haven’t taken a position on the specific ordinance,” said Nancy Shiffler, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Huron Valley Group, which includes Washtenaw, Monroe, and Lenawee counties. “We certainly, in general, think that any reduction in use of plastic bags is probably a good thing.”

County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, voted to implement the fee, saying the idea originated over two years ago from a group of University of Michigan students who proposed an outright ban on plastic bags.

Though most of the students have since graduated, the dialogue they began eventually resulted in the resolution passed on Wednesday. Rabhi stressed that the purpose of the fee is exclusively to reduce plastic bag use, not to generate revenue for the county.

“The goal is for us to make zero dollars,” Rabhi said. “The goal is to incentivize people to use their own reusable bags.”