Past the mountains of buried trash at Flagstaff’s Cinder Lake Landfill, 25-foot-high fences stand guard to catch flyaway trash picked up by northern Arizona’s whipping winds. Everything from dog food bags to plastic containers cling to the base of the fences’ nets, but by far the most prevalent items are plastic bags.

The city of Flagstaff spent almost $67,000 last year removing windblown trash from the area around the landfill, and project manager Matt Morales estimated that up to 80 percent of the items lofted beyond the landfill’s fences are plastic bags.

The possibility of eliminating, or at least greatly reducing, the single-use bags that get caught in trees, coalesce in waterways and blow across streets in and around Flagstaff is motivating a growing coalition of groups hoping to convince the city’s leaders to enact a ban or a fee on them.

After sitting on the back burner for almost eight years, the issue of regulating the disposable bags given out at the cash register of Flagstaff’s retail stores will move to the forefront next month. City Council is scheduled to consider plastic bags at a Jan. 13 work session.

The city’s sustainability department and its sustainability commission have spent months studying the issue, collecting data and creating a draft ordinance while local community groups have started to mobilize education and outreach efforts in support of such action.

Across the country, more than 170 cities or counties having banned or placed fees on one-time-use plastic and even paper bags. Now, it will be Flagstaff’s turn to decide if it will join them.

No appetite

City leaders first started tossing around the idea of somehow regulating one-time-use bags in 2007, said Nicole Woodman, the city’s sustainability manager.

But there wasn’t the appetite for an ordinance, so the city instead decided to focus on outreach and education. Staffers gave out reusable bags, designed educational games about recycling and waste and helped set up plastic bag recycling drop offs at local grocery stores.

The city also completed surveys, one that showed that almost 90 percent of Flagstaff residents thought litter was a problem in the city and associated plastic bags with that issue. Another in 2013 showed 59 percent of residents supported banning plastic bags at stores in Flagstaff and 44 percent supported imposing a per-bag fee.

A group of fifth-graders even did research on the issue and calculated that stores around Flagstaff give out more than 9.5 million point-of-sale bags each year. It was after their presentation to city council in May 2012 that council asked for a recommendation on how to address plastic bags in the community, Woodman said.

Since then, the city’s sustainability commission has researched disposable bag ordinances in places like Boulder, Colo., whose 10-cent fee on paper and plastic bags resulted in a 68 percent reduction in the use of single-use bags. Eugene, Ore., found that after implementing a plastic bag ban and a 5-cent paper bag fee, 60 percent of retailers said more people were bringing their own bags and Seattle, which implemented the same ban and fee combination, reported that almost half of retailers saw a decrease in the use of single-use bags.

After looking at the data, the commission drafted an ordinance that would ban plastic bags given out by retailers at the register, or point-of-sale. Woodman’s recommendation is to place a fee on both paper and plastic bags and use the revenue to provide free reusable bags to the community.

The proposed ordinances and other data will be a starting point, but “we want the council to have a philosophical conversation about plastic bags,” Woodman said.

Environment and economics

While the city commission’s proposed ordinance focuses on the environmental impacts of plastic bags, this is an issue where environment and economics align, said Moran Henn, programs and development director with Friends of Flagstaff's Future, which supports either a ban or a fee on the disposable bags.

Stores save money because they don’t have to purchase as many bags for customers. The Flagstaff Farmers Market on the east side of town stopped offering plastic bags at the cash register this fall. Owner George Yoskovich estimated the move will save the store $12,000 a year in bag costs in the coming year, allowing him to lower prices. He offers to put bigger customer orders in reused cardboard boxes, reducing the number of times he needs to have them hauled away from the store.

Inside Norton Environmental’s Materials Recovery Facility on Butler Avenue, which sorts and bales the city’s recycling, plastic bags act like gum in the belts and rollers that carry materials through the building. The facility has to stop its machines several times a day to clean out plastic, which costs the company $200 or more per day in lost work time, said Ray Sellards, the general manager.

At the Cinder Lake Landfill, plastic bags tend to fly the farthest beyond the outer fencing. Morales said that if a ban or a fee regulation could reduce the amount of plastic bags delivered there, it would significantly reduce the area landfill employees would have to cover in cleanup efforts.

From an environmental standpoint, it’s hard to argue with the litter plastic bags create, Woodman said. Very few are effectively reused, recycled or properly disposed of and they create “unsightly litter on streets, sidewalks and waterways,” according to her documents on the issue.

They are a constant sight during waterway cleanups organized by Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, Henn said. As the bags break down they become microlitter that’s almost impossible to collect.

Bags and people

Some have brought up the argument that a ban could have a disproportional impact on low or fixed income populations, but Henn pointed out that reusable bags are prolific and cost just a few cents each at thrift stores. If a ban or a fee were to pass, Henn said her organization would ramp up its efforts to make and distribute reusable bags. The city is also working on creating bag banks at places like the public library where people can get reusable bags for free, Woodman said.

In the case of a fee on paper or plastic bags, the city would have a revenue stream that it could put to a variety of uses.

The advantage of considering bag regulations now is that Flagstaff has dozens of examples to study, Henn said.

“We are looking at cultural shifts,” she said of the issue. “We have to start shifting away from the idea of disposables. That something can just be used once and thrown away, from coffee cups to take out containers, and bags are a good first start for Flagstaff.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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