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Ditching the single-use bag

A plastic bag stuck in a tree in Lakeside. (Photo by Jamie Harvie)1 / 2
Bag It Duluth campaign spokesperson Jamie Harvie speaks to crowd at the campaign kickoff on Jan. 5 at Zeitgeist Arts. (Photo by Caitlin Nielson)2 / 2

Paper or plastic?

It’s the question asked cash registers across the city. A new campaign in Duluth is working change that.

The “Bag It, Duluth” campaign proposal would encourage residents to bring reusable bags when they shop, through a citywide ordinance to phase out single-use plastic carry-out bags and a minimum charge for single-use paper bags. The campaign also encourages the use of more sustainable food and beverage containers as polystyrene foam food or beverage to-go containers would be phased-out as well.

“I think we have to be cautious with the term ‘ban on plastic bags’ because it’s a nice headline, but the effort is really about encouraging reuse and environmentally preferable to-go containers,” said  Jamie Harvie, campaign spokesperson and executive director of Institute for a Sustainable Future. “At the core, what we’re about is shifting behavior. I think what we expect as consumers is for our retailers to provide us with free bags that we use once and toss out. One grocery store will go through 1.5 million single-use plastic bags a year. I think in the heart of hearts, that conflicts with our values as Duluthians.”

Motivated in part by recent studies showing significant plastic contamination in Lake Superior and the Great Lakes, the Bag It, Duluth Campaign is a call to action for the City of Duluth to follow the lead of more than 160 cities and states across the United States and enact legislation that promotes reusable bags. It is estimated that 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes annually, according to a recent study by Rochester Institute of Technology.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem in the world. What we really want to encourage citizens to do some soul searching and ask the question: Are we, as citizens in this community and part of a global community on this planet, willing to think differently about our behavior?” Harvie said.

The campaign held a kickoff event on Jan. 5 at the Zeitgeist Arts and an informational meeting on Jan. 10 at Bent Paddle to answer questions. As of date of publish, over 40 local businesses and organizations have supported the proposal on the website, One such business is the University of Minnesota Duluth Stores, which supervisor Ann Pellant said has had its own bag use reduction program for the past six years.

“It was something that the students were concerned about so we thought we’d jump in and try to do something about it,” Pellant said. “So we only ask if people need a bag if it really looks like they need one. And if you don’t take a bag, we have a nickel program. We have some little wooden nickels made that we give to the customer that they can put into a box for local charities.”

The stores have donated to organizations such as the UMD Sustainability Office and Animal Allies. Right now, the nickel program is dedicated to raising money to plant more trees on campus after several were taken out by summer storms.

The UMD stores also goes completely bag-free every year from spring break to the end of the spring semester. Pellant said the change sometimes surprises a few students, but “most are OK with it and a few are excited.”

“We do have some paper and woven bags just in case people really need one. It’s reduced our use of plastic bags considerably, though. Whether we can go completely bag-free without legislation, I’m not really sure,” Pellant said.

Harvie is encouraging citizens to visit to read the proposal and the frequently asked questions.

“We can’t have an intelligent conversation unless people know what’s contained within the conversation. So we need dialogue, so that’s the first place concern, go to the website and take a look at what we’re proposing,” Harvie said. “If you’re a supporter, we’re asking you to let our city councilors know about it. We’re asking citizens to go to their organizations, business, groups and asking them to come on board and show their support and show their love of place.”