Plastic bags may get the boot from Ashland this spring.
The City Council in a study session Monday directed staff members to work with the Ashland Conservation Commission in crafting an ordinance that would ban plastic bags. It could come before the council for debate and possible adoption by March 2014.
Councilor Rich Rosenthal said plastic bags wind up as litter and also jam machines that process recyclable materials.
"We can't save the world, but we can take action to reduce the proliferation of these awful things," Rosenthal said.
Ashland resident Cheryl Carlich came to the study session dressed in a costume made from 500 plastic bags — the amount the group Environment Oregon says each person uses each year.
The group has helped win bans in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis. It asked Ashland to consider such a ban in July.
The council referred the issue to the Conservation Commission for research and recommendations.
"I think it's great that they are willing to move forward," Carlich said.
Councilor Pam Marsh cautioned that she wouldn't want a ban to be overly onerous for businesses. She recommended exempting smaller businesses and keeping stores' reporting requirements on the ban's impact to a minimum.
Councilors said educating people to switch to reusable market bags would be a key part of any effort.
"I'm still the person juggling eight items because I forgot my (reusable) bag and I refuse to take a plastic bag," Marsh said.
Conservation Commission Chairman Mark Weir said Ashland should also consider requiring stores to charge a fee for paper bags. Otherwise, consumers will just use paper bags instead of reusable bags, he said.
Weir said paper bags require more energy to produce than plastic bags and still require the cutting of trees, though many bags also use recycled material.
Some cities with plastic bag bans have required stores to charge 5 to 25 cents per paper bag.
"It is the stick component of the carrot-and-stick approach," Weir said.
He said the Conservation Commission first studied the possibility of a plastic bag ban back in 2008.
"At that time, the city of Ashland wasn't ready to be a leader. Unfortunately, now we're following other cities," Weir said.
Ashland can learn from the experience of other cities, said Risa Buck, a Recology Ashland Sanitary Service representative to the commission and the company's waste reduction specialist.
Buck said that Recology will support whatever decision is made by city officials. The company gathers both garbage and recyclables in town.
"It would be great if plastic bags went away. We're on board either way. We would rather prevent waste," she said.
Some Ashland businesses have already discontinued plastic bags, including the Ashland Food Co-op, Shop'n Kart, Market of Choice and Albertsons.
Co-op Communications Manager Annie Hoy said the store stopped offering plastic bags back in 2008.
The co-op charges 10 cents per paper bag, or customers can use free paper bags that other customers have brought in for re-use when those are available, she said.
Customers embraced the paper bag fee, with most saying in a survey that they preferred a 25-cent fee per bag, Hoy said.
The store sells reusable bags that range in price from 50 cents to $2. Money from the sale of paper bags subsidizes the reusable bags to lower their cost to customers, Hoy said.
After one year of having the paper bag fee in place, the use of paper bags dropped by more than 80 percent, she said.
"I think a majority of Ashlanders are ready for this," Hoy said.
She said the council should carefully consider all the details of banning plastic bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags. Every business sector would have different needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, she said.
Hoy said there would have to be exceptions to allow the use of plastic bags in some circumstances.
Conservation commissioners have recommended allowing some plastic bags, such as bags used to hold fruits and vegetables, bulk food, meat and fish, frozen food, hot prepared food and liquids, and flowers and plants that could be damp.
At Safeway, which still offers plastic bags, reusable market bags are displayed for sale at checkout counters and in other areas of the store. Prices start at $1.99 per bag.
Safeway customer Nikki Jett, who was carrying groceries out of the store this week in plastic bags, said she wished reusable bags weren't so expensive.
Conservation commissioners have discussed possible teamwork between the city and local businesses to distribute free or discounted reusable bags.
Jett said both reusable and plastic bags are convenient. She reuses plastic bags for grocery shopping, and also to line garbage cans.
Safeway customer Diane Hamilton was adamantly opposed to a plastic bag ban.
She said workers at other stores fill reusable bags so full that they are too heavy for her to carry. Hamilton said she is elderly and has a heart condition.
"Why take away small plastic bags that are lightweight and convenient?" Hamilton asked.
Without plastic bags, Hamilton said she will have to buy garbage bags to hold her trash and her pet's used kitty litter. She said she stopped shopping at Albertsons when that store did away with plastic bags.
Safeway customer Jesse Shannon, who was leaving the store with a plastic bag containing groceries, said he supports a ban that would force him to stop using plastic bags.
"We're just lazy and if someone would make us do it, we would do it happily," he said.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.