Jeff Wieser remembers how, as a newly elected member of the Westport Representative Town Meeting nearly a dozen years ago, he carried his cellphone on his daily runs so he could document the plastic bag litter strewn around his coastal town.
Wieser’s photos became part of the debate the town was having as it considered a ban on single-use plastic bags – those checkout freebies that come mainly from grocery stores.
“Plastic bag trash is very, very noticeable,” Wieser said. “The goal was to change behavior to get people to use reusable bags. It was about reducing a very reducible item out of the waste stream.”
The ban, the first in the state since a short-lived one in New Haven in the early 1990s, passed 28-to-5 in September 2008 and has been in effect for exactly 10 years.
“I like to say the world has not ended in Westport,” Wieser said.
More than a few communities have noticed, and several neighboring towns have now passed similar bans, some just going into effect or due to take effect in a few months. Many more around the state are considering them.
Even more notably – in this legislative session, 19 bills with some sort of statewide plan to reduce plastic bag use have been filed. Those bills were already prompting serious discussions and compromises about how to accommodate interested parties – which means just about everyone in the state – when Gov. Ned Lamont chimed in with his own proposal.
And that’s when the trouble started.
As part of his revenue package, Lamont is recommending a statewide 10-cent per bag tax on plastic bags, with all the money going to the state. The proposal is unlike any of the hundreds of plastic bag measures around the country. It’s already raised not only eyebrows, but also ire.
“I don’t want to have a plastic bag ban broken from the beginning,” said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association.
Pesce’s organization has come around to supporting statewide legislation to reduce, if not eliminate, single-use bags of all sorts. To that end, he’s been working for months with a coalition that has come up with a detailed plan. But it’s not the one the governor seems to want.
Among the many contentious issues they’ve worked through are whether to ban single-use plastic bags or to put a price on them to disincentivize their use, and whether to include paper bags in the measure to keep people from simply switching from plastic to paper. Paper costs retailers much more – a penny or so for plastic versus as much as 10 cents for paper. Paper is also far more limited in terms of re-use and its overall carbon footprint from manufacture to disposal is bigger than plastic.
There are also concerns that a tax on plastic bags would be regressive, affecting low-income people more. That the governor is pitching a plastic bag tax as a “sin” tax isn’t helping much with public relations since the bags principally involve a product used with the most basic of human needs – food.
Pesce called the governor’s move “a curveball.”
“We didn’t see that coming,” he said.
The many problems with plastic bags
For starters – Americans use a lot of them. As of about 2014, the most recent data available, we use more than 103 billion bags a year.
In Connecticut, waste analyses done for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in 2010 and 2015 showed that plastic merchandise bags increased from 0.5 percent, or nearly 12,000 tons, of municipal solid waste in 2010, to 0.7 percent, or nearly 17,000 tons, in 2015.
Plastic film, which includes bags, was found to constitute 1.4 percent of the curbside recycling stream in 2015. But you can’t even get rid of bags that way. They get caught in the recycling machinery, slowing the process because they have to get untangled and fished out, if they don’t break the machines entirely. And they wind up contaminating the rest of the recycling, making all of it non-recyclable.
“Bags that go into curbside recycling can never be recycled,” said Lee Sawyer, DEEP’s director of materials management planning. “They only add to the cost.”
Bags can be recycled separately, however, and some grocery stores provide recycling bins for that purpose. But they are not well used. And, with China cutting back on the recyclable material it purchases from the U.S., that may cease to be an option.
Even if people manage to re-use these thin, easily torn bags, sooner or later they have to be tossed – whether they’re loaded with trash, dog poop, or nothing. If you toss the bags out in the trash, in Connecticut that means they will either be burned in a waste to energy facility or hauled to an out-of-state landfill.
If the bags fail to make it into any of these waste streams, they have a tendency to blow around – winding up along roadsides, entangled in trees, utility poles, and storm drains, or littering beaches before ultimately ending up in the water.
“What starts off as a little problem becomes a marine debris problem,” said Sawyer. “Single-use plastic bags are completely unnecessary. There are better alternatives readily available.”
Beach cleanups conducted by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment in 2017 recorded 1,146 grocery bags from 61 cleanups over 57.6 miles of beach. In 2018, there were 1,099 grocery bags from 50 cleanups over 65.35 miles.
Many alarms have been sounded about the amount of plastic that’s turning up in oceans worldwide. And while photos of marine life with plastic bags in their stomachs or intestines have become Internet staples, it’s thought that the bulk of ocean plastic, by far, comes from plastics other than bags – namely packaging and bottles.
“Is a plastic bag that harmful? We’re not sure about that,” said Travis Wagner, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Southern Maine who has studied the impacts of plastic bag pollution. “It breaks down into micro particles. A couple of studies sampled seafood and shellfish and they found plastic debris in their digestive tract. What does that mean? We’re not sure, but it certainly raises concern.”
But Wagner said it’s “absolutely correct” that plastic bags are not the biggest plastic pollution problem.
“In the policy world you sometimes focus on the most solvable component,” he said. “Plastic bags are more easily solved because it’s something that can be done at the local level and it’s something you don’t have to have – you can go without a plastic bag.”
It’s also symbolic of bigger issues of consumption and waste, said Eric Goldstein, the New York City environmental director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Symbols are important,” he said. “It’s also something that people feel they can do something about.”
The question is – how to do it?
Turns out cities, towns and states are trying all kinds of models. But none are like Lamont’s proposal.
What the governor is proposing is a 10-cent tax per plastic bag beginning later this year. All the proceeds would go to the state, which Lamont’s budget puts at $30.2 million in fiscal year 2020 and $26.8 million in 2021.
But there are examples that raise questions about just how feasible and realistic that plan would be.
California, with the only existing statewide grocery bag program, prohibits single-use plastic checkout bags. Stores must provide reusable bags or recycled paper bags and charge at least 10 cents for them. All that revenue goes to the retail establishment to cover costs.
The District of Columbia’s program, in effect since 2010, charges five cents for plastic and paper bags. One or two cents goes to the retailers. The remaining amount goes to a fund for cleaning up the Anacostia River.
Chicago may offer one of the best lessons in molding consumer behavior to convert from disposable to reusable bags. In 2015 the city instituted a ban on plastic bags. But it was repealed a year later, considered a failure because shoppers just opted for the still-available paper bags.
The city’s new plan is a seven-cent charge on both plastic and paper as a way to get customers to bring reusable bags. Disposable bag use dropped more than 40 percent in a matter of months.
Two of the seven cents goes to the retail establishment to help cover costs. The other five cents goes to the city.
So far no program has cropped up in which the bag charge goes entirely to government.
There are also questions about whether a statewide program would supersede the many existing and contemplated bag programs throughout the state. For instance, would Westport be forced to give up its ban and start charging for bags after 10 years?
Could other communities institute similar bans in ways that might keep the state from collecting the money it envisions?
Grocery chains themselves might already be beating the state to the punch. Whole foods dumped plastic checkout bags years ago. Trader Joe’s now charges 10 cents for its signature paper bags and is switching its plastic produce bags to a compostable variety. The nation’s largest chain, Kroger – which does not operate in Connecticut, announced last year it planned to get rid of plastic bags by 2025.
In January, Big Y, with 30 of its 70 stores in Connecticut, announced it would get rid of single use bags next year. Part of the impetus was the difficulty navigating the dozens of different local bag regulations around Massachusetts where the chain has its other 40 stores.
“We’ve been living this plastics bag ban,” said Rick Bossie, senior vice president of operations. But he said the company was also signing onto the overall environmental message. “We do not see paper bags being an acceptable alternative. They’re just as harmful to the environment.”
While the details of how Big Y will handle the switch to reusable bags have not been worked out, it will likely mean fewer bags to tax in Connecticut.
“The governor will not get the money he thinks he will get,” Bossie warned.
And he’s likely to get a fight from Pesce and his collaborators. Their plan calls for a phase-out of plastic bags with a seven to eight cent fee. After three years or an 80 percent reduction – whichever comes first – stores would only provide paper at a cost to shoppers.
Low-income people, identified through use of SNAP or WIC, would get bags for free. Many plastic regulations elsewhere in the U.S. provide carve-outs for that population. Communities like Westport, which already have policies on the books, would be grandfathered.
While not addressing the individual concerns raised by Pesce and others, Chris McClure, spokesman for the governor’s budget office: “We are willing to work with all interested parties and stakeholders to develop the best possible solution to reduce the usage of plastic bags and help improve the environment.”
Environment Committee co-chair, Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, a newcomer to the legislature, is aware she has a controversy on her hands. She called Lamont’s proposal a “first iteration” and said she’s concerned about impact of a regressive tax on low-income communities.
“The end goal would be to remove plastic bag pollution,” she said. “It’s not something we should have a knee jerk reaction to.”
To that end, Cohen is planning hearings for mid-March as part of a “concerted effort” by the committee.
“I’m certainly willing to take a shot,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Craig Miner, R- Litchfield. “I hope we get an opportunity to look at all these different proposals and debate issues broadly. I hope we can craft something that makes most everyone happy.”