Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation
Astoria city councilors are contemplating a citywide ban on plastic grocery bags, but have asked business associations and advocates to talk to merchants about what the policy might mean for them.
More than a dozen cities in Oregon have adopted bans, including Manzanita last year, but efforts to push forward a statewide ban have stalled.
City and county leaders have talked about the possibility of bans, but at this time only Astoria and Gearhart are pushing forward. Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer has said he is not necessarily in favor of a ban, though he is interested in discussing the issue of plastic in the environment.
At a work session Wednesday, the Astoria City Council was united in addressing the use of plastic bags in the city somehow, but was divided about how to best approach the issue. Councilors agreed the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association and the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce should work with Public Works Director Jeff Harrington and Mayor Arline LaMear to talk to businesses and gather more information about what a ban might entail before considering any policy changes.
“I’ve just become increasingly upset by plastic grocery bags,” said LaMear, who asked the City Council to discuss a potential ban. “Plastic grocery bags that are stuck in every chain-link fence, every bush, every tree.”
But City Councilor Tom Brownson argued a countywide ban would be more effective since the major generators of plastic bags — big box stores like Walmart, Dollar Tree, Home Depot and others — are located in Warrenton and would not be affected by a ban in Astoria. Kroger, the nation’s largest chain of grocery stores, owns Fred Meyer and announced in August it would phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025.
In Astoria, Safeway would be the largest store impacted by a ban. Brownson worried that a ban that didn’t include Safeway’s competitors in Warrenton would be “an unfair imposition.”
City Councilor Bruce Jones asked if an outright ban was the most effective way to deal with plastic bags or if something like a fee would be better. David Reid, the chamber’s executive director, echoed Jones and said he would like to see a collaborative approach with businesses.
While she was in favor of Astoria leading the charge on a plastic bag ban, City Councilor Cindy Price wondered if city staff had the capacity to take on another project given the amount of other large projects the council has asked them to prioritize.
“The capacity to take on new projects is slim,” replied City Manager Brett Estes. “I’ll tell you my capacity to take on new projects is nil.”
City staff will still be involved in meetings and discussions, along with the business organizations, but the chamber and downtown association’s involvement lightens the city’s workload, Estes said afterwards.
City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill agreed with Brownson that a countywide ban would be best. She also agreed with Price that city staff has a lot of projects to juggle. But, she countered, “Astoria should be a leader in doing everything that we can for the environment.”
Nemlowill is the marketing director for the Astoria Co-op, a natural and organic food store downtown. The store provides paper bags for customers, but donates the money the business would have spent on bags to charity if customers bring their own reusable bags.
Carl Peters, general manager for Recology Western Oregon, which handles garbage collection in Astoria, commended city councilors for looking at the issue. Recology employees encounter plastic, and plastic bags, in every beach and river cleanup they participate in, he said. In addition to posing a danger to the environment, single-use plastic grocery bags contaminate recycling and clog up machines at recycling centers.
In researching a possible ban, Harrington and other city staff looked at cities in the Pacific Northwest where plastic bags are already banned.
Harrington said they know plastic bags harm wildlife.
“Especially in the ocean where these bags seem to end up,” he said. Given Astoria’s proximity to both the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, “a bag you see in the street is probably going to end up in the ocean.”
“We’re a very small city,” he added, “but everybody has an impact.”