Jackson plastic bag ban final

JACKSON — Jackson’s divorce from plastic bags is final as of Monday, when half a year of research and deliberation culminated in a law designed to purge the town of the polluting products.

The Town Council voted unanimously to renounce single-use plastic bags, following in the footsteps of cities and states across the U.S. to eliminate a major component of the waste stream and preserve Jackson Hole’s ecosystems.

“This is a big step,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “It’s a message that says we do care about our environment. It’s a message that says we will make sacrifices to protect it.”

The ban’s rollout will come in phases through 2019. Starting April 15 grocers and large retailers — which account for the vast majority of bags — will no longer be allowed to hand out single-use plastic bags. They’ll also charge a 20-cent fee for paper bags and reusable plastic bags, with the revenue split between the businesses and the town. Small retailers will follow suit Nov. 15.

Single-use plastic bags are defined in the ordinance as thinner than four mils, a unit of measurement equivalent to one-thousandth of an inch. Though somewhat arbitrary, that thickness is on the higher end of the spectrum used in bag bans elsewhere.

Worried business owners objected throughout the town’s consideration of the ban over the past six months. They pointed to hardships they may face, from stockpiles of bags suddenly illegal to longer checkout times as they figure bag fee transactions. Bob Lenz and Don Frank, the two retiring councilors, stalled the ban last month over such apprehensions.

Lenz showed up Monday, the first meeting after his term ended, to make a final plea for a more lenient timeline for small businesses. As a councilor he consistently argued they would need until fall of 2020, rather than 2019, to run down their bag inventories and avoid major financial losses.

But after six months of considering the ban — already behind the curve compared to other mountain towns like Vail, Aspen and Telluride in Colorado — the councilors were eager for action. Muldoon said he expects they will tweak the ordinance before long, but he wouldn’t wait to impose a law he called “long overdue.”

“It’s going to cause some short-term pain, we understand that,” Muldoon said. “But it is necessary pain, and I believe that the reward will be worth it.”

Jackson’s first shot at a bag ban fell flat in 2011, when the council abandoned it over fears it would hurt businesses and low-income families that would struggle to pay the fee. But after months of studying similar bans in other towns, town staff crafted the new one to skirt those issues as much as possible.

“Our community’s been asking us to do something about this for more than a decade,” Councilor Jim Stanford said. “I’m proud that … tonight our council will finally act.”

Monday’s meeting was the first for new councilors Arne Jorgensen and Jonathan Schechter. Both lauded the town for addressing the problem of plastic bags, about 5 million of which end up in Teton County’s waste stream each year.

“I think it’s time for communities like Jackson to step up,” Jorgensen said, adding that if the ban does somehow leave small businesses in a bind, he is open to revising its terms.

It’s unclear how much money the fees will bring in. But the town’s share will go to Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling for reusable bag distribution, community cleanups and education about the ban. Assistant Public Works Director Johnny Ziem hopes to launch an education campaign in the next few weeks.

More broadly, the new law is one front in the town and county’s war against waste in general. By reducing, recycling and composting they ultimately aim for 100 percent waste diversion.

“We have something extraordinary here,” Schechter said of the ban, “in what I hope is one small step.”