In September 2020, Cincinnati city council voted 7-1 to pass an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags for many businesses; later in 2020, the Ohio legislature passed House Bill 242, which promptly stopped the city from enforcing the ordinance.
During a Tuesday morning meeting of Cincinnati city council's Climate, Environment and Infrastructure committee, local advocates urged committee members to re-implement a form of the ban in the new 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan, which is currently being crafted.
The issue with the 2020 ordinance, according to presenter Nathan Alley, a conservation program coordinator with the Sierra Club Ohio, was not the ban on single-use plastic bags but a second thing the ordinance aimed to accomplish: recouping costs of alternative packaging for businesses through a $.05 charge to customers.
HB-242, passed by the Ohio legislature in 2020, prohibited local governments from charging fees or taxes on "auxiliary containers." While the bill was only intended to be active for the span of 12 months, it was later made permanent.
Alley pointed out that HB-242, which stopped Cincinnati's 2020 ordinance in its tracks, would not prevent a new ordinance from implementing the same ban on single-use plastic bags if the charge was removed from the ordinance's verbiage.
During Tuesday's meeting, Alley said the original fee in the 2020 ordinance was never intended to be a tax for the city. Instead, he said, that fee would have gone to the business, to recoup costs the company incurred in switching from single-use plastic bags to a more environmentally sustainable option.
Alley's presentation requested city council consider revising the 2020 ordinance to remain in compliance with Ohio law, while still enacting a ban on single-use plastic bags in the city.
Several community members approached to address council through the public commentary phase of the meeting, echoing Alley's points made during the presentation.
"One of the things I've noticed is that Cincinnati very often is in the forefront of ideas, very good ideas ... but the implementation somehow lags behind and gets stalled," said one resident.
"It's a domino effect," said another. "Once we're a leader, someone else will go 'well, Cincinnati did it, maybe Columbus can do it, maybe Cleveland can do it' ... it has to start somewhere."
No vote was cast by council members on the issue; the 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan remains open to public comment until Feb. 8.
Cincinnati's 2020 bag ban attempt
In 2020, the ordinance passed by the city council serving at the time, would have required that restaurants and "food-service establishments" — a broad term that, in the ordinance, included grocery stores, corner stores and any other business that sells food in a permanent location — would be prohibited from bagging customers’ items in single-use plastic bags.
Customers were encouraged to bring their own bags from home, buy a cloth or reusable bag from the establishment.
Kroger was also engaged in the conversation, even self-implementing their own internal bag ban in order to comply with the city. The company intended to eliminate single-use plastic by Jan. 2022, but after Cincinnati's ordinance fell apart, so too did Kroger's need to comply with it. Kroger announced in 2018 it planned to commit to phasing out plastic bags altogether at every location nationally by 2025.
The ordinance would have gone into effect Jan. 1, 2021.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States produces millions of tons of plastic bag waste each year. Most bags go to landfills, where they may take hundreds of years to biodegrade; fewer than 10% are recycled.