Connecticut lawmakers are coming under increasing pressure to pass legislation prohibiting or phasing out single-use plastic shopping bags, with retailers now advocating a ban and communities across the state already taking local action.
The plastics industry continues to argue against any bag ban. But activists say this year’s General Assembly debate is more likely to focus on the most effective way to convince consumers to stop using these bags than on “ban-or-no-ban.”
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion on this,” Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said this week. Cohen is co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee, which now has at least 18 different bag ban bills on its plate for this session.
Cohen said her committee expects to conduct a public hearing on plastic bag legislation before the end of this month.
One key point of discussion among lawmakers and activists is whether to use a state plastic bag tax to discourage their use, or to require groceries and other retailers to charge bag fees. Bag fees would allow stores to use the money to offset their higher costs for paper or thicker plastic bags.
Louis Burch, Connecticut director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said a broad coalition that includes environmental groups and the Connecticut Food Association strongly opposes placing any state tax on single-use bags.
Burch said the coalition is worried consumers would view any state tax “as the state once again dipping its hand into people’s pockets.”
“This is not about creating a new tax on consumers,” agreed Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents grocery stores and food wholesalers and is part of the anti-bag coalition. “It’s not about how to fix a state budget problem.”
According to Pesce, thin single-use plastic bags now cost stores 1 to 2 cents apiece. Thicker plastic or paper bags cost retailers 7 to 8 cents each.
Pesce said the coalition’s proposal is to ban very thin single-use plastic bags and place a fee of up to 15 cents per bag on thicker plastic or paper shopping bags. All nonreusable plastic bags would be phased out after three years — possibly sooner if the industry could show an 80 percent reduction in plastic bag use.
Other issues wrapped up in the debate over plastic bag bans include the potential impact on the U.S. plastics industry, how bag fees might hurt low-income people, or potentially cause problems for folks who currently reuse plastic bags in a variety of ways.
Environmentalists have been lobbying against single-use plastic bags for years, warning of the damage they create for land and marine ecosystems.
Plastic bag ban proposals haven’t gotten very far in previous legislative sessions, but public awareness of the plastic waste issue is growing. There are now also bills before the General Assembly to ban helium balloons, disposable plastic trays and tableware.
By some estimates, an average American family uses as many as 1,500 bags annually, and experts say one billion plastic bags are used in Connecticut every year.
American Airlines, McDonald’s, Hyatt Hotels Corp. and other businesses, have already announced plans to phase out or end the use of throwaway plastic bags. Major cities across the U.S. have also enacted plastic shopping bag prohibitions.
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Representatives of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the U.S. plastics industry lobbying group on this issue, argue that bans on single-use bags are actually counterproductive.
“You can ban this product … but the alternative is worse, both economically and environmentally,” said Matthew Seaholm, APBA spokesman.
Plastics industry officials argue that thicker, reusable plastic bags or paper bags are more expensive to make, take up more space in landfills than single-use bags, and note that single-use bags are made from natural gas byproducts, not oil.
The plastics industry group is expecting to spend $30,000 lobbying Connecticut’s legislature in 2019, according to records filed with the Office of State Ethics.
Banning plastic bags could also cost the economy tens of thousands of jobs, and such bags are recyclable, industry officials say. The problem, according to environmental activists, is that barely 5 percent of single-use plastic bags are properly recycled.
One increasingly powerful factor adding momentum to the anti-plastic bag movement in Connecticut right now is money: cities, towns, businesses and consumers are facing higher costs because plastic bags are seriously fouling up recycling sorting machines and raising recycling fees.
Five Connecticut cities and towns have already enacted plastic bag bans or fees to discourage their use. At least 17 other communities are now considering similar actions. Retailers throughout the state are worried about a situation where regulation of single-use bags becomes a hodge-podge of local ordinances.
“I think that becomes confusing for consumers and becomes more difficult for retailers,” Pesce said. “That’s why it’s critical to get it done on the state level.”
Hartford’s city council is now considering a city ban on plastic bags. John Gale, assistant majority leader on the council, said the proposal now being discussed would give major stores six months to use up their disposable bag inventory and smaller stores a year to get rid of their single-use plastic bags. The proposed ordinance would also set a 10-cent bag fee for consumers who still want to use them.
Gale said that would “of course” be simpler if the General Assembly enacts a statewide plastic bag system.
“But if the city does this, it gives the state more incentive,” Gale said. “It puts pressure on the state to make [a plastic bag ban] uniform.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s new administration hasn’t yet come out in support of any of the plastic ban bills. Burch said Lamont “indicated a number of times [on the campaign trail last year] that he’d be interested in eliminating plastic bags.”