At the request of citizens, the city of Missoula is studying potential ordinances or voluntary programs that would ban or limit single-use plastic bags at local retail stores.

There’s ample precedent nationally: 349 U.S. cities, counties and states already ban or tax the use of plastic bags.

And while city staff and some elected officials have been interested in addressing the use of plastic bags for years, the recent escape of trash – much of it single-use plastic – from the Missoula landfill prompted a citizen outcry.

Even as Republic Services worked to corral the bags blowing across Interstate 90 during a March blizzard, residents asked City Council members, the mayor and city staff to ban plastic shopping bags.

In fact, Republic Services general manager Glenda Bradshaw told Missoula Current that she’d welcome a conversation about banning the briefly used but long-lived plastics.

“Even in a moderate wind, plastic bags are the bane of our existence,” Bradshaw said. “The wind will pick them up like a little kite. Even on a good day, we’re chasing those things all over the place.”

One recent study estimated that a single-use shopping bag has a 12-minute lifespan from the moment it’s filled with groceries or other goods to the moment it’s discarded by a shopper.

It will take that same bag anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to decompose, depending on environmental conditions at the landfill where it ends up.

Now Chase Jones, the city of Missoula’s energy conservation coordinator, is researching ordinances and voluntary programs enacted by other cities across the U.S.

“I don’t know if we’ll end up at an ordinance or with something voluntary where we enlist small and larger retailers, or some combination of those approaches,” said Ginny Merriam, communications director for the city.

Already, the research has dispelled one prevalent local urban legend – that cities in Montana are prohibited from adopting a ban on plastic bags.

Not true, said Merriam.

“There is nothing that expressly prohibits cities in Montana from enacting a plastic bag ban,” she said. “But there may be things that limit a ban. For example, a city in Montana cannot charge a fee for using a plastic bag, as some cities elsewhere have done. That would be an unlawful fee.”

Dozens of U.S. cities charge shoppers 10 cents or a quarter to use a plastic bag to carry home their purchases from a retail store. Others charge a deposit if a shopper uses a plastic bag.

But Missoula could simply ban single-use plastic bags at retail outlets, forcing shoppers to bring their own bags to the store or, possibly, to use a paper bag or cloth bag or cardboard box provided by the retailer.

Hundreds of U.S. cities and counties have outright bans on single-use bags, as do the states of New York, California and Hawaii.

And at least two Missoula stores voluntarily forgo the use of plastic bags.

Costco reuses boxes to hold shoppers’ purchases and offers no bags, plastic or paper. The Good Food Store has no plastic bags; shoppers either bring their own bag or pay the store for a paper bag.

Retailers in some U.S. cities have used plastic bag bans as an opportunity to distribute or sell cloth bags to shoppers that carry the store’s logo, a bit of advertisement in the name of environmental protection.

If Missoula were to propose a ban on single-use plastic bags, a City Council member would have to take up the cause and carry the ordinance, Merriam said. “And the mayor would have a hand in the decision, too.”

Yet another approach would be to enlist the community in bringing about a change in the “social norm,” Merriam said.

As the social norm changed, shoppers would voluntarily and routinely forgo the use of plastic bags in favor of bags or boxes they brought to the store.

No longer would shoppers expect that purchases be placed in plastic bags – or double bags, as at some Missoula grocery stores.

The city could also team up with local nonprofit groups to work with individual stores and encourage the voluntary discontinuation of single-use plastic bags.

“We’ve heard people say they want a ban, or at least a conversation, about single-use plastics,” Merriam said this week.

Pollution created by thousands of plastic bags that escaped the Missoula landfill during high winds in March provoked a call for stronger efforts to reduce the use of plastics. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Pollution created by thousands of plastic bags that escaped the Missoula landfill during high winds in March provoked a call for stronger efforts to reduce the use of plastics. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

At Environment Montana, director Skye Borden said all Missoula residents – not the landfill – were to blame for this winter’s blizzard of plastic bags on the hillsides and in the median along I-90.

“Moving beyond single-use plastics is something we can do right here,” Borden said in a letter to the Missoula Current and in comments made at a City Council meeting last month. “Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our land and rivers for hundreds of years — especially when we don’t really need it.”

Borden found ample support on social media and at the March 11 City Council meeting.

On Facebook, Christina Ragsdale said: “We need to stop manufacturing and using plastic. It starts with consumers demanding it and companies changing the way they package – well, everything. The less we produce, the less we’ll have to reclaim or dispose of.”

Added Jaime Alexis Stathis: “That hillside is one of my favorite places on the planet. (Ok, not the landfill, but the ridge behind it.) This may be inviting attack, but I think it’s time for Montana to go the way of California and have a statewide ban on plastic bags. Montana is way too beautiful to be littered on like this, and people obviously can’t be trusted to make good choices for the environment.”

In addition, the city’s own Zero by Fifty waste-reduction plan, adopted in August 2018, directed officials to consider “restrictions on single-use disposables like plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam.”