A controversial proposal to enact a fee or ban on plastic bags has renewed momentum after the May election — exciting many who believe it could help the environment, yet worrying others who believe that it would disproportionately affect people of low-income.
One of the more vocal opponents of a potential fee or ban in Athens-Clarke County is Mayor Nancy Denson.
“One of the things I have not been willing to put on the agenda is a plastic bag ban or charge,” said Mayor Denson in a previous interview with The Red & Black. “The reason I don’t is that I know there’s some people that are extremely passionate about it, but I also know that that’s where leadership comes in ... That’s where knowledge of your community and your community’s trust in your judgement comes in.”
Mayor Denson believes a fee would negatively affect low-income people in the Athens community in a way that it wouldn’t affect those advocating for the fee.
“I think it would be very difficult for low-income people because if you charge for the bags, it’s going to hit the hardest on those people,” Mayor Denson said. “I started stopping at the bus stops and asking people with a bunch of plastic bags how they felt about that [and] they were just saying ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do that.’”
Kelly Girtz, Mayor-elect differs from the current Mayor, advocating for a ban on plastic bags and pointing to the hazardous health impacts of plastic.
“You can easily recognize that the volume of plastics littering the globe are having a big health impact on every living thing, and that includes us,” Girtz said.
Girtz noted the plastic found in waterways, such as the Oconee River, are breaking down and “becoming part of us,” which is where the negative health effects come in.
In order to enact a successful ban of plastic bags, Girtz is set on preparing measures that will allow for plastic bag alternatives to be available for everyone in the community.
“We would have to make sure that there are available, effective and affordable alternatives to plastic in the hands of everybody in Athens. I think that that’s doable and that we would have lots of partners in that work to make it viable,” Girtz said.
Bag the Bag is a community organization advocating for a ban or fee on single-use plastic bags.
“We’re essentially trying to change the plastic habit,” Bag the Bag President Abigail West said. “Fortunately, all of the candidates that support us got elected, so we’re really excited.”
West opposes the idea that low-income people would not support sustainability measures.
“The problem with that argument [...] is that it’s assuming that people who are low-income somehow cannot be as sustainable as the rest of us,” West said. “It’s just the pitfall of thinking that people that have low income are less educated and can’t think in an educated way, which is just not true. People get it, it’s the environment. We all live in it.”
District 1 Commissioner-elect Patrick Davenport said his passion to help the poor stands in the way of agreeing with Girtz and Bag the Bag on this initiative.
“I am 100 percent against adding an extra cost to consumers,” Davenport said. “Until I see a formidable way where that cost is not hurting the people that are already hurting the most, I will just have to stand with my values.”
Recycling, Davenport said, is the key to solving the single-use plastic bag issue in Athens.
“The main reason I ran for commissioner is because I believe that we can do a much better job in helping the poor,” Davenport said. “Imposing a fee is going to hurt the poor more and you’re also going to get a lot of blowback from consumers who feel like a fee would be unfair.”
Still, other politicians, as well as other citizens in the community, insist that a fee or ban is the best approach to reducing the amount of plastic waste in Athens.
District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith thinks reusable bags should be given out.
“One way to [solve it] is to provide reusable bags to whoever wants them,” NeSmith said. “We would be collecting fees from the plastic bags, so we should be able to use some of that money to buy people reusable bags. The goal isn’t to make money off this, the goal is to reduce significantly the use of plastic bags.”
Tim Denson, commissioner-elect for District 5, supports a bag fee, but with exemptions for those receiving government assistance.
“I want to make sure that if we put a fee in place, that anybody paying with an EBT card or on WIC, would not have the fee put on them,” Tim Denson said. “I want to make sure that when that revenue comes in, it’s being used wisely, and it’s being used in a way that actually helps our environment, beautifies our environment, and helps people transition away from single-use plastics in general.”
Emory Perry, a junior physics major at UGA, is supportive of a fee, while also recognizing the possible drawbacks.
“I think a fee on plastic bags would be a great idea to reduce their usage. It would be a nice, gentle reminder to people to bring their own reusable bags or even plastic bags from a previous trip,” Perry said. “It’s possible it could have a slight effect on the poor, but if they don’t want a fee, they can reuse their old bags.”
The next steps toward a fee or ban on single-use plastic bags in Athens-Clarke County could take place when the newly elected commission and mayor-elect Girtz take office in January.