The Chickahominy Report

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N.C. legislature passes plastic bag ban for Outer Banks

Plastic bag litter is a problem everywere

Plastic bag litter is a problem everywhere. (Copyright © 2009 David M. Lawrence)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story was modified on June 23 to update the lede with more recent developments concerning the bill.

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Despite opposition from business and industry groups, the North Carolina legislature Tuesday passed a bill to ban some uses of plastic bags in the three Outer Banks counties.

The Senate version of the bill was passed on May 13. The House followed suit with a modified version of the Senate bill Thursday, which the Senate approved on a 44-2 vote late Monday night. Chrissy Pearson, press secretary for Gov. Bev Perdue, said Monday that the governor is expected to sign the measure.

While most press accounts, including this one, refer to the legislation as a plastic bag ban, the legislation — pushed by Sen. Marc Basnight, president pro tempore of the North Carolina state Senate — was not meant to trigger the seemingly unending paper versus plastic debate.

“The purpose of the bill is to encourage people to use reusable bags instead of plastic or paper bags,” said state Sen. Josh Stein, the chief senate sponsor of the legislation. “The bill requires retailers to provide an incentive to consumers who bring and use their own bags.”

Nevertheless, as the bill — which applies only to the barrier islands such as those that make up the Outer Banks in Currituck, Dare, and Hyde counties — restricts the use of single-use plastic bags to fresh fish, meat, and poultry; fresh meat, fish, and poultry products; and fresh vegetables, the legislation was seen primarily as a plastic bag ban. Use of paper bags, however, would be restricted to 100 percent recycled material. Incentives to encourage customers to use their own bags range from cash and coupons to credits in a retailer’s rewards program.

Even though the goal is to encourage use of reusable bags, Stein explained why paper bags will remain an option.

“If a consumer forgets his or her reusable bag, then the retailer has to provide paper instead of plastic because paper biodegrades in nature, unlike plastic,” Stein said. “Trash bags are a blight. North Carolina’s state flower is the dogwood; I don’t want the plastic bag to replace it.”

North Carolina Rep. Pricey Harrison, one of the bill’s House sponsors, said that business groups opposed to the legislation were concerned about fairness — the legislation applies only to stores with wholesale or retail space greater than 5,000 square feet as well as those who are part of a chain of five or more outlets in the state — and availability of recycled paper bags as there are no manufacturers of recycled paper bags in North Carolina.

The American Chemistry Council says encouraging recycling will help reduce plastic bag litter. (American Chemistry Council)

The American Chemistry Council says encouraging recycling will help reduce plastic bag litter. (American Chemistry Council)

Plastic industry representatives opposed the legislation for other reasons — the environmental impact of plastic bag bans. Several life-cycle studies of paper bags versus plastic ones show that the manufacturing of plastic bags consumes far less energy and materials and produces far less waste than the manufacture of paper bags. Far less waste is likewise generated by the manufacture of the standard retail plastic bag. Likewise, recycling plastic bags consumes less energy and generates less waste than recycling paper bags. In landfills, neither bag degrades to any significant extent. In the landscape, however, paper bags will biodegrade whereas plastic will physically break down into very tiny pellets.

One of the most significant problems with plastic bags, however, is their effect in the marine environment, where sea turtles and mammals may confuse the bags with food sources like jellyfish. In a post-mortem study of more than 400 leatherback turtles, researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada found that more than a third of the turtles had plastic materials in their digestive tracts. Plastic bags were the most common component of that material. The concern over marine litter inspired the focus on the Outer Banks in the North Carolina legislation.

“Certainly, the littering — and marine litter — is a problem,” said Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council. “We believe that we must all work together to prevent litter, and prevent marine litter, but we believe that bans are the wrong approach.”

Christman said that studies of the effectiveness of bans in other locations, such as a 2007 ban on plastic bags in San Francisco, have often revealed unintended consequences such as an increase in litter volume overall — not what proponents of the legislation would like to see. He cited a study by Robert Lilienfield, editor of The ULS [Use Less Stuff] Report, that showed that the amount of packaging increased after the city’s plastic ban was implemented — customers failed to switch to reusable bags and retailers often double-bagged purchases with paper bags because they assumed that’s what customers wanted. Another unintended consequence is that after the plastic bag ban was implemented, stores removed plastic recycling bins — where many people dropped off used plastic — from their premises.

Christman has no problem with the primary goal of the legislation — to encourage greater use of reusable bags.

“We strongly support the use of reusable bags. Reusable bags are a great part of a comprehensive approach — reduce, reuse, and recycle,” Christman said. “That’s what we think we should be doing, focusing on that comprehensive approach.”

The key, he said is to educate merchants and customers to make wiser choices regarding the use and disposal of plastic materials. He cited an industry-sponsored effort, “Plastics. Too Valuable to Waste.  Recycle,” in partnership with the California Department of State Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit organization Keep California Beautiful.

While the current legislation applies only to the barrier islands along the Atlantic coast, legislators such as Basnight would like to see a statewide effort to encourage the use of reusable bags. It remains to be seen if the ban — assuming Perdue signs it into law as expected — will be effective in achieving that goal. Most likely, a strong public education and effort will be required as well.

“Encouraging recycling is important,” Christman said. “I think the thing we really need to do with bags is to make it more commonly understood by folks that they can recycle plastic bags at their grocery stores as well as other wraps. … We want people to bring back their dry cleaning bags, their wraps around cases of soda, their wraps around cases of diapers and paper towels and everything else.”

— David M. Lawrence

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