The fate of Omaha’s plastic bag ban may have been sealed when Mayor Jean Stothert vetoed the measure May 22.
But student groups interested in science are taking a statistical chance. They have spent the past two weeks lobbying an Omaha city councilman who is a former Millard school principal, in hopes of getting him to support the ban.
To them, climate change and plastic pollution, particularly from microplastics, the little beads that seep into water and land and are ingested by animals, represent a public health crisis that they will live to see, several said.
One student group calls itself Students for Sustainability. The group meets weekly, drawing students from 10 Omaha-area public and parochial high schools. Among them: Millard West, Omaha Mercy and Omaha South.
Two members, Corah Johnson of Omaha Marian and Lukes Loontjer of Westside High, said they want their city to lead on environmental causes. They called the ban “a start.”
If the ban passes, Johnson said, “who loses?”
Councilman Rich Pahls of southwest Omaha, the former Millard administrator and swing vote, said nobody will change his vote. At least at this point — he’s still a no vote. But, he said, if anybody could get him to, it might be “the kids.”
“After listening to the young people, they do seem to have well-thought-out plans and ideas,” Pahls said last week.
The council is expected to take up Stothert’s veto of the plastic bag ban on Tuesday. The ban was approved on a 4-3 vote, with Pahls among the no votes. The council would need a fifth vote to override the mayor’s veto.
To win Pahls over, students would have to get past Pahls’ stated belief that the ban might be ahead of where the public is today on the issue.
The measure would ban single-use plastic bags at Omaha retailers that are larger than 10,000 square feet.
The proposed ban has run into opposition from Stothert, the statewide association of grocers and the plastics industry, which has hired former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub to lobby on its behalf.
Stothert has said market-driven solutions would be more effective than a ban at reducing litter and plastic pollution.
Daub on Friday stressed that people prefer plastic bags because of their convenience and household uses, including as trash liners, poop scoopers and more.
Stothert, Daub and the grocers have argued that the private sector is already moving away from plastic bags and doesn’t need a push.
Wohlner’s sent a press release Friday detailing its plan to eliminate plastic bags, effective Saturday. Locally, it joins grocery chains Aldi and Trader Joe’s in not providing the bags. Kroger, the parent company of Baker’s, aims to move away from the bags by the middle of the next decade.
Councilmen Pete Festersen and Ben Gray, who co-sponsored the plastic bag ban, said they know it will be an uphill battle to get Pahls or another council member to change his or her vote.
But they say they’re trying, driven in part by students. Gray emphasized the need to decrease plastic pollution in people’s food and water.
“Five years from now, we’ll wonder why we didn’t do this five years ago,” Festersen said.
If nothing else, sponsors say, they’ve changed the public conversation about litter and waste. The three council members who oppose the ban, Pahls, Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton, are talking about funding a separate study of local litter, which sponsors of the ban also support.
Pahls made himself the primary target of the pro-ban lobby by saying that moving away from plastic bags was probably the right approach. He compared the bag ban to earlier efforts to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Smoking bans faced passionate opposition initially, failed, were brought back multiple times and eventually became widely backed policies.
Pahls’ ideal outcome, he said, would be to see retailers who want to move away from plastic bags engage the student groups to find ways to harness their ideas and energy on the environment.
Their input could move the public conversation in a way that creates greater public buy-in for the move away from plastic bags, he said.
Pahls did raise the possibility that Festersen and Gray might be able to get past the mayor’s veto if they delayed implementation another year or two past 2022. Sponsors had already delayed implementation of the ban until 2022 to give retailers time to adjust and in hopes of gaining Pahls’ support.
He said he’s open to the policy change, just not the timing.
The ban’s young advocates don’t want to wait, citing the rising intensity and frequency of floods, storms and other natural disasters as evidence that environmental threats should not be ignored.
“Listen to what the people are saying,” Westside’s Loontjer said.