On April 3, Athens City Council met to discuss an ordinance introduced by Councilmember, Alan Swank, D-4th Ward, concerning the reduction of single-use plastic bags by commercial establishments in the City of Athens.
The ordinance would restrict restaurants and businesses from offering clothing, food and personal items in non-compostable bags to customers. If the ordinance passes, it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
Gene Armes, the General Manager of College Book Store, said that if the ordinance were to pass, it would negatively impact his business.
“If this ordinance passes as it is written it will cost our store more than $8,500 per year extra, every year into the future, to replace our current heavy weight plastic bag with the least expensive comparable paper bag I can find,” Armes wrote in an email.
A $5,000 fund is available to local businesses to help them make the transition to paper bags; however, it would not pay for College Book Store’s initial cost increase so the business plans to give its money to other small, struggling businesses, Armes wrote in an email.
Swank got the idea to create the ordinance from a previous council member, Jennifer Cochran, back in 2016, he said. However, the previous ordinance stated that if a store provided customers with an alternative form of bag that wasn’t plastic, then they would be charged 10 cents, Swank said. He added that some people viewed the 10 cents as a tax, so the ordinance never made it through Council.
“You cannot enact the plastic bag ban if there is a fee associated with it,” Swank said. “That’s how we get around this. There is no fee.”
A lobbyist group reached out to Council stating its concerns with the potential banning of single-use plastic bags; however, Swank said Law Director Lisa Eliason assured him that the ordinance follows the Ohio Revised Code.
“What the lobbyist was saying wasn't based on environmental fact, it was based on the economic situation for the businesses that they represent,” Swank said.
If a business violates this ordinance, then it would be fined $150, and a failure to pay the fee within 30 days would result in a minor misdemeanor citation in court.
Originally, the ordinance stated that all stores must discard their plastic bags by Aug. 1, 2023; however, the date was changed to make it easier for businesses to make the switch, Swank said.
“There are businesses in town that have a stockpile of bags, which they'll never be able to get rid of by August 1,” Swank said. “Even though it's still plastic bags, we felt that that was an unfair financial burden on those folks just to throw those away and replace them with some other kind of bag.”
Armes said he advocated for the pushback date because he orders his bags $50,000 at a time to ensure he gets the best price. The store had just received its last shipment late last October, so there were thousands of plastic bags still in stock.
Swank said by pushing back the date the ordinance would go into effect, it would give Council enough time to educate the public on what they are doing and why they are doing it.
“There may be a little grumbling to start with for people to get used to it… but before you know it, people are gonna say, ‘Wow, I can't believe we used all those plastic bags,’” Swank said.
Athens ReThink Plastics, a volunteer-based committee, has played an important role in creating the ordinance, Swank said.
Nancy Pierce, a volunteer for the group, said Athens Rethink Plastics serves to educate community members about plastic and the role it plays in environmental pollution. Pierce said single-use plastic carryout bags are a huge problem in Ohio because they can’t be easily recycled.
Pierce said Athens ReThink Plastics wants to encourage businesses to start charging a small fee to customers for using their paper bags. By doing this, Pierce said, people will be discouraged from continuing to use paper bags altogether. Once people learn to bring their own reusable bags, it won’t be a big deal to customers, Pierce said.
“I think stores are a little shy about charging for paper bags, but in reality, the externalities like that are often charged for,” Pierce said. “You just don't know it.”
College Book Store currently pays 13 cents per plastic bag, but if it were to switch to paper bags, it would cost 30 cents per bag. To keep the price at just 30 cents per bag, the bags would need to be manufactured overseas and shipped globally, Armes said.
Pierce said Athens ReThink Plastics supports the ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags because it will be a starting point in combating the plastic-use issue in Athens.
“(It will be) an educational point as well because, when this happens, it's going to call to everybody's attention to what is going on in plastics,” Pierce said.
The group is going to give away reusable bags at the Athens farmer’s market and any stores that will allow them to give used bags to customers who don’t have one with them, Pierce said.
However, with the amount of business College Book Store conducts with visitors and alumni, it won’t be able to properly inform all of its customers that they need to bring a reusable bag, Armes said. He said customers may also be deterred if they have to carry multiple paper bags.
“As a local business owner I feel an obligation to give a customer who makes the decision to purchase from our store a bag to carry out their merchandise if they want or need it,” Armes said in an email.“ So in the end we will do what is asked of us and bear the added expense, but I just wanted the public to be informed that the statements claiming this will be easy and not a burden on our locally owned businesses are not correct.”