Cuyahoga County works towards eliminating single-use plastic bags

In addition to being a Cuyahoga County councilperson, Sunny Simon is also Chair of the Education, Environment and Sustainability Committee.

A ban on single-use plastic bags in Cuyahoga County started on Jan. 1, 2020, but the county has not yet enforced the ban because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ban included retail stores of all types, convenience stores, grocery stores and drug stores. There are exemptions for dry cleaners, bakeries, restaurants and more. 

Sunny Simon, a Cuyahoga County councilperson, helped pass the legislation banning single-use plastic bags.

“We have a ban that went into effect, and then COVID hit and everything just got pushed back because of COVID,” Simon said. “Now the state came in and they preempted our ability to ban plastic.”

Simon said that the plastic industry “took advantage” of the pandemic and scared people away from using reusable items. 

The plastic bag ban is still in effect, but the enforcement date was pushed back so businesses would not be penalized for providing plastic bags. The ban will be enforced again Jan. 16, 2022.

First-time violators of the ban will receive a written warning. Second-time violators will carry a civil fine of up to $100 and subsequent violations will carry fines up to $500. Violations are defined as each day a retailer doesn’t comply with the ordinance.

Cuyahoga County partnered with Giant Eagle to eliminate plastic in their stores at the end of 2019. Giant Eagle’s plan was to eliminate plastic bags in January 2020.

Simon said the continued use of single-use plastic is unsustainable.

Between January and March 2020, the grocery store chain prevented the use of more than 20 million single-use plastic bags. However, safety precautions from the pandemic caused Giant Eagle to return to using single-use plastic bags. 

“Our plans are to relaunch our single-use plastic bag elimination efforts in Cuyahoga County in​ 2022 and bring guests on our journey that centers on the use of earth-friendly reusable bags,” said Dan Donovan, Giant Eagle spokesperson.

Dan Donovan said that Giant Eagle’s goal is to eliminate all single-use plastics from their operations by 2025.

Goodwill, on the other hand, stopped providing single-use plastic bags for customers at the beginning of the ban and never offered them again.

“We assumed that [the legislation] would pass, that we would not be allowed to give away plastic bags. So we just prepared accordingly,” said Maureen Ater, vice president of marketing and development at Goodwill Industries.

“We kind of look at ourselves as the original recycler. We are taking donated goods, things that people may have considered throwing away, and finding new uses for them,”  Ater said. “So for us, it was really important that we found a way to make this work.”

Before the pandemic, the nine Goodwill locations in Cuyahoga County started a bag-share program to help with the transition of eliminating rid of plastic bags.

‘“If someone had a bag that they didn’t need any longer… we put those in there so someone needed a bag, they could grab it out of there,” Ater said. “It was a great recycling program.”

Maureen Ater said that the timing of the ban was unfortunate since it was only put in place three months before the start of the pandemic.

After the pandemic, Goodwill stopped their bag-share program as a safety protocol. Then, they began offering recycled paper bags until they transitioned to not offering bags at all. 

Ater has only received one negative response about removing plastic bags from their stores, among dozens of positive responses. Simon also said she hasn’t heard much negative feedback from Cuyahoga County residents.

“Once people really understood what’s at risk and what’s at stake, they really were happy to comply with using reusable bags,” Simon said. “People really don’t understand why it’s a problem, but it’s pretty horrific once you learn about it.”

Ater said the plastic bag ban was important to Goodwill because of the chain’s commitment to environmental causes. She said that recycling donated goods back into the community and keeping items out of landfills is the core of the business.

“We [worried] about ‘how are we going to make this happen?’ ‘How are we going to carry on certain elements of our business?’ but in the end, this change really spoke to how we want to treat our environment,” Ater said “So, we embraced it and we’ve adjusted well.”

She said that offering options to customers is the best way to transition away from plastic bags, like offering paper bags or encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags.

Ater said that it is important for Goodwill to embrace environmental causes.

“I think that if you can offer options and you can encourage just that small change in consumer behavior, it can be successful,” Ater said.

Since the county could no longer ban locations from providing plastic bags, Simon found other ways to decrease plastic bag use.

“We just heavily promote bringing your own bags and go through an educational program through the county which we’re doing now,” Simon said. “We’re really gearing back up to go back to people bringing their own bags… and to continue education in a positive way.”

Simon said that a plastic bag ban had “really low public support” in 2012, but about 70% of people in Cuyahoga County were in favor of the ban in 2019. She attributes the change in opinion to education and awareness.

One educational outreach program included presentations around Cuyahoga County about the hazards of plastic pollution from notable speakers, such as Sherri Mason, a scientist who studies plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Cuyahoga County also gave away 50,000 reusable bags in an effort to encourage people to bring their own bags when shopping.

“I just hope everybody understands what’s at stake and how much of a difference they can make just by bringing their own bag,” Simon said. “We all can make a huge difference by changing a little bit.”