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Hartford - A bill intended to sharply reduce the use of plastic and paper shopping bags by requiring stores to impose a 5-cent-per-bag fee may be the only practical way to change public behavior about an environmentally harmful product.
Or, it would inflict economic harm on retailers and customers at a time they can ill afford it, with a product that's actually relatively benign.
Those opposing views were presented by speakers representing environmental groups and retailers during a public hearing of the state legislature's Environment Committee Wednesday. While a similar bill raised in 2008 failed to win passage, since then one Connecticut town, Westport, has acted on its own to ban single-use bags from its grocery stores, pharmacies and other stores.
Two representatives of that town told the committee that after some initial resistance, residents have adopted the habit of bringing reusable bags to stores, and it has become a point of pride for the Fairfield County community. They and other speakers also noted that bans on non-reusable bags are working in communities including San Francisco, Brownsville, Texas, and several countries in Europe and elsewhere, and that retailers such as Ikea charge for bags.
With a nickel-per-bag charge at all stores, speakers said, Connecticut residents would be motivated to bring their own reusable bags to stores more consistently, and a large litter and pollution problem would be reduced. The pending bill pertains to both plastic and paper bags, but nearly all of the testimony referred to plastic bags.
"There's no way my preaching to them or your preaching to them is going to get them to change their behavior," Martin Mador, legislative chair for the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club, said about consumers. "We're going to have to give them a financial incentive."
Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, disagreed that "Bring Your Own Bag" campaigns at stores haven't been working.
"Usage rates have gone up dramatically," he said, though he did not provide supporting numbers.
More customers are adopting the habit voluntarily, Sorkin said, and are bringing used plastic bags to store recycling bins rather than throwing them in the trash. He added that most of those that do get thrown away are burned in incinerators rather than dumped in landfills, where the bags, made from petroleum-based resins, do not decay for 100 years or more.
"It's a cost-effective product that can be recycled," he said. Recycled plastic bags are turned into such products as planks for decking and playground equipment.
Also arguing against the bill was Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, and Steve Rosario, Northeast regional director for the American Chemical Counsel, an organization that represents manufacturers.
"The timing of this would create a hardship at a time when retailers are trying to climb out of the worst times economically," Phelan said.
"What do you suggest we do?" asked state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the committee, referring to the harmful effects of the bags when they are ingested by wildlife, clog sewer systems and pollute land and waterways.
Phelan advocated for more places where bags can be recycled and more public education to encourage recycling.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment representative Louis Burch, however, urged the lawmakers to shepherd Connecticut into the "growing movement" to make single-use plastic bags the exception rather than the rule at stores. He reminded them that the bill would have retailers send the 5-cent fees collected to the state to be used for recycling initiatives. Both retailers and customers could save money if fewer bags were used, he said, and towns would save money by having fewer bags to dispose of in incinerators and landfills.
A related bill also debated Wednesday would expand the 5-cent bottle redemption fee, now imposed on beer, soda and water bottles, to juice, teas and sports drinks. The same groups that favored the bag bill also supported this bill, while retail representatives opposed it.