The Detroit City Council unanimously approved a resolution this week in support of repealing a “ban on bans” of plastic bags and disposable containers. (Shutterstock)

A Detroit City Council member is pushing to change legislation around disposable bags, forks, cups, and other single-use plastics in Detroit. 

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

City Council unanimously approved a resolution this week in support of repealing a “ban on bans” of plastic bags and disposable containers. If the law is repealed, the city’s Green Task Force wants to seek a ban of plastic bags in Detroit. 

A state law passed in 2016 prohibits local municipalities from banning plastic bags and similar products or from imposing a fee on them. Two separate Democratically-sponsored bills this year seek to repeal that law, giving local municipalities the option to ban plastic bags. Detroit’s resolution to repeal the law was introduced by Council Member Scott Benson.

“We’re looking to ban plastic bags,” said KT Morelli, co-chair of the Detroit City Council Green Task Force State and Local Policy Subcommittee. 

“It’s been very clear it’s problematic to our sewer systems, to our environment, to the material recovery facilities, they’re problematic even to landfills…. The fact that they’re cheap is not in any way equal to the amount of problems that they cause,” said Morelli, who is also a delegate for the United Nations Global Plastic Treaty

“We’re going to try and do it equitably,” she said. Her goal is to implement a ban incrementally so mom-and-pop and other small businesses can slowly transition as they’re able. Morelli added that they’re not interested in imposing a fee on single-use plastics, as that would put more burden on Detroit’s low-income residents. 

The city’s Green Task Force is led by Benson who said he would be an advocate to change single-use plastic legislation, if the law is repealed. 

“I would personally push to work with the administration to see what we need to do to help reduce the amount of plastic bags that are blowing through the city of Detroit and gumming up our recycling facilities,” he said. 

Nearly 100 billion plastic bags are thrown out each year in the United States.  Plastic bags cannot be recycled and present a host of environmental and human health threats. The bags break down in the environment into microplastics, which can enter the human bloodstream and affect fertility, nerve functioning and infant development. And particularly bad for Detroit, which is affected by severe recurrent flooding, plastic bags can clog storm drains and make flooding worse.

Researchers have found that Detroit is one of four cities that are the worst contributors to the estimated 22 million pounds of plastic that enters the Great Lakes each year. The others include Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland. 

Benson said plastic bags are a time-consuming headache for Detroit’s General Services Department and recycling facilities. People often place plastic bags in recycling bins, but they can’t be recycled, leading to increased expenses for recycling facilities. 

Benson said the City Council would need to discuss if legislative changes would include a ban on plastic bags or a small tax. Nationwide, 21 states allow local governments to enforce bans or fees on plastic bags, while 10 states have statewide bag bans.

Washtenaw County and Detroit are among  the few Michigan communities that have openly considered crafting their own bans or fees if the “ban on bans” is lifted. Traditionally, Detroit has lagged behind the state as a whole in recycling efforts.

But Samantha Pickering, public health and environmental policy coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Council, said she expects communities across the state to consider regulating single-use plastic if and when it becomes legal to do so.

Noting that single-use plastic contributes to both litter problems and public health issues when they break down into endocrine-disrupting microplastics, she said, “I think having the ability to regulate that would be of interest to communities that have the bandwidth to deal with it.”

Opponents of the legislation say repealing Michigan’s ban would create a confusing patchwork of regulation across the state. 

“It creates a massive administrative nightmare for our restaurants,” said John McNamara, vice president of government affairs at the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. He said the ban could prevent restaurants from getting bulk discounts on containers and also worries about the supply chain being able to keep up. 

McNamara said it could also negatively impact low-income residents. “You have some people who don’t live near a grocery store, or in a food desert, and they rely on restaurants as their source of food,” said McNamara, citing statistics about the high number of meals eaten out in the United States. “This could very much potentially have a negative impact on everyone, but especially on lower income Michigan residents.” 

Grace Keros, owner of American Coney Island in downtown Detroit said it varies, but that approximately half of her sales are to-go orders.She uses paper bags to pack to-go orders, but uses plastic forks and other utensils. 

She echoed that leaving it up to each municipality would be “confusing” and said that any alternative has to be sustainable for the business. 

“Of course everybody wants a greener environment and what’s best for the water, the lakes, there’s not one person that doesn’t want that. However, it’s got to be affordable,” she said. “And it has to be effective. And at this point, nobody’s done it.”

Keros said she’s looked into replacements for the plastic forks and other utensils she uses, but hasn’t found good options. 

“How many more rules or regulations do restaurants or anyone else in the hospitality industry need for God’s sakes?,” she said. “Don’t bother me, I’m a restaurant, I’m doing what I can do, I’m a small business.” 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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1 Comment

  1. Honestly, we need a ban or high taxes on these single use plastic items. Those items literally litter every street, park, parking lot, etc in every corner of the city.

    Even being sympathetic to the equity argument, it is incredible inequitable that these plastics litter our environment and cause us all significant harm in some way.

    It is honestly kind of gross that McNamara is using low-income individuals as a shield to protect industry in their entirely unregulated and toxic single-use product usage.

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