It’s hard to make a focused Omaha City Council crowd say, “Aw!”
But science teacher Shelley Brown did so Tuesday when she walked five fifth- and sixth-graders in their St. James/Seton Catholic School uniforms to the City Council lectern to testify in support of a city ban on plastic bags.
Students in skirts and polo shirts stepped one by one to the microphone, each offering a separate part of a presentation on some of the dangers to human and animal health of plastic pollution, including plastic bags.
Their testimony brought smiles to ban supporters and opponents alike during a public hearing that lasted more than two hours .
The ban passed 4-3, but its futur remains in doubt after Mayor Jean Stothert pledged to veto it. The council would need a fifth vote to override the mayor’s veto.
Sponsors Ben Gray and Pete Festersen supported the ban; so did council members Vinny Palermo and Chris Jerram. Voting against were Rich Pahls, Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding.
One of the St. James presenters, Kiana Kaldenberg, said she had learned a lot from each of the speakers, including ban opponents who mostly argued the value of letting businesses continue their shift away from plastic bags.
Her sentiment was echoed by former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, who spoke as a lobbyist for the plastics industry. He said people on each side of the debate had shared facts, and that some on each side had exaggerated.
He also said a ban would accomplish less than a nonbinding resolution to encourage retailers to move away from plastic bags supported by the mayor and three members of the City Council who voted against the measure.
The lone vote against the ban who left the door slightly ajar was councilman Pahls, a former educator who was touched by the mix of elementary, high school and college students who spoke in support of the ban.
He compared the effort to ban plastic bags to state and local efforts to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. He said the effort took years of education and outreach and failure. He said the bag ban’s time, too, would come.
Gray and Festersen passed an amended ban that would prohibit single-use plastic bags in all retailers larger than 10,000 square feet. That’s about twice the size of a large convenience store and covers such merchants as Hy-Vee, Walmart Walgreens and Big Lots.
Festersen said he would pursue a veto override because he owed it to the thousands of people and energized base of young people who support the ban. He also said reducing plastic pollution and litter is worth it.
Public testimony tilted heavily in favor of the ban, as it did for a previous version of the ban. Many argued the dangers of plastic pollution to the land, air and water, and its propensity to show back up in food people eat.
Those who spoke against the ban included Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association. She and others against the ban advocated for working with retailers to encourage efforts already underway.
She also, like Stothert, argued that the city should study its litter problems. Stothert has said the city needs to know more about what’s causing its litter problems before it singles out one source of pollution over another.
Festersen and Gray have said they would support such a litter study and that the delayed implementation of their plastic bag ban, which goes into effect in January 2022, gives the city time to gather baseline data.
The mayor said earlier this week that she thinks the ban would not accomplish its goals, in particular reducing litter, because plastic bags make up so little of the city’s litter, and the ban allows smaller stores to keep using plastic bags.
Advocates of the ban, including David Corbin of the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the measure a start in the right direction.
Creighton University economist Kevin Gomez, who leads the school’s Institute for Economic Inquiry, said the ban would be ineffective because people would use more plastic trash bags and paper bags, which he said do more damage to the environment.
He described the ban as a way to coerce changes in behavior that typically require buy-in to work. He told council members to “throw the ban away.”
But Kaldenberg, in a brief interview at the County-City Building after she spoke, said she hopes the mayor won’t end up vetoing the ban.
“I personally think she should not veto it,” she said, smiling in her yellow polo and blue plaid skirt. “For us kids, we have a longer life left to live.”
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