Retailers, shoppers brace for plastic bag tax ahead of ban

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Retailers and grocers have ramped up marketing efforts for reusable shopping bags with less than three weeks left to prepare employees and customers for a 10-cent tax on single-use plastic bags long denounced by environmentalists and outlawed statewide starting in 2021.

Large foldable bags with messages like "Give Back" and "Grow Greener Every Day" hang from numbered checkout lane poles and spinning racks near magazines and snacks at Stop & Shops across the region. Facing the counter at GNC under a sign reading "99-cent Reusable Bags — Stay Green on the Go" are dozens of large black "Live Well" bags for sale. Cherry-red reusable bags with floral designs drape over a shelf of Nicorette gum behind the counter at CVS. At Walmart, which rolled out a series of plastic waste reduction goals earlier this year, purchasable totes featuring images of freshly sprinkled produce spin at checkout carousels alongside the free nonbiodegradable bags notorious for polluting waterways and clogging recycling systems.

Heaving a half-dozen plastic bags from a Stop & Shop cart into his pickup truck Thursday, Rick Douchette, 58, of Montville, grimaced in the parking lot when told of the 10-cent fee and said, "I'm not going to do that."

Asked how he'd get around the new tax, which begins Thursday, Aug. 1, Douchette said his wife, Lisa, "already bought the fancy ones."

"The trend has been up and pretty consistent toward consumers going away from plastic and bringing their own bags," said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, whose members operate about 300 retail food stores and 135 pharmacies.

Still, many stores are bracing for confusion over the tax and potential shortages of reusable bags, Pesce said, in part because the state gave retailers just 90 days to establish plans, train employees and educate customers. The tax-then-ban initiative, supported by the CFA and many environmental groups, was approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont as part of the two-year $43 billion budget package.

The law also allows stores to place a 10-cent fee on paper bags, which Pesce said cost retailers about 8 cents to produce as opposed to a penny for single-use plastics.

Pesce said an upcoming conference call is scheduled for CFA members to share best practices from "retailers who've done this already in Stamford and Norwalk."

"There will be a lot of confusion early on. A lot of consumers are gonna walk in day one and not know," he said. "We're on the front lines of communication. We're talking to our associates and trying to communicate as best we can."

Walking out of Stop & Shop in Groton on Friday morning, Mary Healy, 88, of Gales Ferry said she hadn't heard about the upcoming tax or ban. She called the bags a "terrible, terrible waste" and said she liked the idea of a ban. The tax? Not so much — not with property taxes and state fees already racking up.

"We should be encouraged to bring our own bags," Healy said, noting a few reusables likely could fold into her purse. "I'd be more than happy to carry my own bags as long as they're affordable."

Big Y leading the pack

At Big Y, checkout lanes feature fliers calling on customers to "Partner with Big Y to save our planet one bag at a time." The fliers encourage customers to bring reusable bags and spread the word of Thursday's announcement that the company would eliminate single-use plastic containers at more than 80 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The grocer already had planned to stop offering plastic bags next year. It's complied with several bans in Massachusetts since 2014, but decided to pull the trigger this summer as more and more communities throughout New England have enacted fees or bans.

"Beyond providing great quality, great prices and great customer service, we also try to be smart about the resources and energy we use," Richard D. Bossie, Big Y senior vice president of operations and customer experience, said in a statement. "By working with our shoppers, we can further reduce consumption to make a difference in and around the tight-knit communities that we serve across New England."

Big Y and other stores plan to offer discounts on reusable bags at least through August as customers transition away from plastic.

Nicole Schneider, Big Y vice president of operations, said in locations where plastic bags are banned, cashiers use a price-look-up code to charge fees for handled paper bags, which also impact the environment; that process will be applied across all stores on Aug. 1.

"As for self-checkout, there is currently a button on the screen asking customers how many paper bags they would like to purchase," Schneider added.

Jacque DeBuse, a Target spokeswoman, said the company "encourages guests and communities to reduce their plastic bag use and we comply with all local government regulations."

Target point-of-sale systems will prompt cashiers or self-checkout customers to key in the number of bags used so the system can automatically adjust the total, DeBuse said. Target, which provides plastic bag recycling kiosks at the front of its stores, gives customers a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag used "in an effort to promote the use of reusable bags and keep more plastic out of landfills," she said.

Sue Heald, manager of the Cumberland Farms in Quaker Hill, ordered a case of medium-sized paper bags this past week, noting customers had been asking about plastic bags and the 10-cent tax. Heald said her store doesn't currently offer reusable bags, but that they might be popular soon.

"We have a lot of regulars who are here every day. They'd grab one," she said. "They're usually a buck."

Several employees at GameStop, GNC, CVS and other area retailers cited company policies and declined to be quoted on the record, but many shrugged when asked about the bag tax, saying they hadn't received directions on how to implement the fees.

"No one has said anything," said Florence Avery, a key-carrier at Home Depot in Montville Commons. "We'll find out when it happens."

Messages left with Walmart, CVS and Home Depot corporate media teams were not immediately responded to.

The state Department of Revenue Services "has had productive conversations with stakeholders on implementation of the plastic bag fee," according to communications director Jim Polites.

Polites added that DRS Commissioner Scott Jackson "has been impressed by the engagement of the business community on this issue, both during the legislative session and as the focus turns toward implementation. Indications are that stores are moving purposefully to comply with the Aug. 1 effective date."

'Win for wildlife'

Hawaii, New York and California have banned single-use plastic bags and more than two dozen Connecticut communities, including Waterford, Stonington and Groton, have considered bans. Several local restaurants have given up plastic straws in favor of paper or metal ones, though state legislation that would have banned plastic straws and polystyrene food containers failed to pass.

According to the CFA, about 700 million single-use plastic bags are distributed throughout the state annually, and Pesce said the legislation eventually could reduce that figure by 80 percent.

"The effects are pretty quick once customers realize there's a charge," he said.

Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound Soundkeeper Bill Lucey previously called the measure a "win for wildlife," noting bags and other plastic items, which never truly decompose, can choke wildlife and cause starvation, and sometimes eventually break into tiny pieces that threaten both animals and humans.

The upcoming tax and ban apply to common plastic bags less than 4 mils, or four thousandths of an inch, thick. Thicker bags available at many mall stores, as well as bags used to wrap loose produce, meat, seafood, dry cleaning and newspapers, are exempt.

The statewide ban eventually will force stores to provide only single-use carryout bags made of 100 percent recyclable paper containing at least 40 percent previously recycled material. Stores face $250 fines for any violations after an initial warning from a town, health district or officials with the Departments of Consumer Protection or Energy and Environmental Protection.

As for the taxes, each store will report the plastic and paper bag fees to DRS through its state sales tax return. According to DRS, stores remit sales tax in Connecticut on a monthly, quarterly or annual schedule based on the store's annual tax liability. Most stores file monthly, Polites said.

The Legislature's Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated the tax would generate about $27 million in revenue, deposited into the state's general fund, each of the next two years before the ban is in place starting July 1, 2021.

Lucey said instead of seeing the revenue "dumped into the catchall general fund," the proceeds should go toward programs "that help repair the damage plastic bags and similar waste have done to our environment — grants to upgrade recycling centers, beach, lake, river, or marsh cleanups, microplastic research, and even bird and marine wildlife assistance would be good fits for this money."

b.kail@theday.com 

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