The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

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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