Connecticut edges closer to plastic bag ban
Hartford — The push to ban single-use plastic bags gained momentum this week as the General Assembly's Environment Committee handily approved a bill that would prohibit stores from offering the bags starting Jan. 1, 2020.
Environmental groups, lawmakers and a growing number of municipalities have eyed bans or taxes on the small, nonbiodegradable bags, which are common at grocery stores and notorious for polluting waterways and clogging recycling processes. The Environment Committee recently also targeted plastic straws and Styrofoam takeout containers, approving bans that some towns and many businesses already are undertaking to reduce littering and save on recycling costs.
The proposed bag ban for Connecticut passed the Environment Committee on Monday in a 25 to 4 vote, just days before New York lawmakers agreed with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to follow in California's footsteps and ban the bags in the Empire State next spring. The approval also came less than a week after two representatives from Westport — where the bags have been banned for more than a decade — shared insight with officials in Waterford, who have debated a ban in a few meetings since last April.
Stonington officials last year set in motion an ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags and straws. In Groton, the Conservation Commission recently surveyed residents and businesses and found "very strong support" for reducing single-use plastics in town.
"It's getting easier and easier to have this conversation. There's new energy behind it," state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said in an interview Friday. "It's consistent with our efforts to conserve the environment and combat climate change. Not one state or even one country can do it by themselves, but we can all take steps. You can change behaviors. In the back seat of my car there are 15 recyclable bags."
If approved later this year by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont, the bill would force stores to provide only single-use carryout bags made of 100 percent recyclable paper containing at least 40 percent previously recycled material. The paper bags must "conspicuously display ... 'Please Reuse and Recycle This Bag,'" according to the bill, which would establish $250 fines for any violation after an initial warning from a municipality, health district or officials with the Departments of Consumer Protection or Energy and Environmental Protection.
The bill would allow municipalities to enact their own ordinances regarding the bags, so long as the ordinances are "as restrictive" or even tougher than the state law. Trash bags, bags without handles designed for newspapers and clothing, and bags provided by pharmacies to customers buying prescription medications are among bags excluded from the ban.
On Friday, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound Soundkeeper Bill Lucey noted that during last year's International Coastal Cleanup, plastic grocery bags were among the top-five items collected by volunteers worldwide, with more than 1,000 picked up in Connecticut.
"These bags and other plastic items never truly decompose," Lucey added. "Large pieces can choke wildlife and fill the stomachs of whales, birds and turtles, causing starvation. They are eventually broken into tiny pieces by sunlight and water action, becoming a form of microplastic that is emerging as an enormous threat to our health and wildlife."
Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Deputy Director Amanda Schoen said her group is thrilled with the committee's approval of the ban. She described the bags as "a huge threat to wildlife, nearly impossible to recycle, and manufacturing them produces considerable greenhouse gases."
"Plastic bags litter our streets, clog our sewers, and too often wind up in Long Island Sound and other waterways," she said. "Our members spoke out throughout the session in favor of eliminating our reliance on single-use plastics, and it is great to see the Committee listening to their constituents and taking action to fight pollution."
Lamont, as part of his two-year budget package, proposed a 10-cent tax on single-use plastic bags, which was not favored by some environmental groups, who argued a ban would be more effective.
The Connecticut Food Association, whose members operate about 300 retail food stores and 135 pharmacies, has been working with legislators, recyclers and environmental groups on a statewide solution because "almost 25 Connecticut communities have adopted, or are considering, local single-use bag ordinances," according to President Wayne Pesce.
"The current scenario is inconsistent as no two ordinances are the same, which makes it confusing for consumers and retailers as to what compliance is or isn't in their local community," Pesce added Friday.
To compensate stores for the higher costs of paper bags, the Connecticut Food Association recommends at least a 5-cent charge on single-use carryout bags, while encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable bags to stores.
"Our goal is to reduce the use of front-end single-use bags by at least 80 percent over three years," Pesce said. "Behavioral change is a challenge in this convenience-driven era, but the prospect of retail, government, consumers and environmental advocates working together to diminish the production, distribution and disposal of bag waste has great merit, now and into the future."
'Going to be a hit'
Waterford Representative Town Meeting member Joshua Steele Kelly noted it wasn't the first time a plastic bag ban had been voted out of the Environment Committee, saying he was "cautiously optimistic about the state's movement."
"There is still a decent chance that this bill won't be voted on, so that the governor's budget can truly be enacted and that tax can be levied," Kelly said Thursday. "That's not my preference — I don't think the people of Waterford need another tax when they go to the store. My hope is that the town will go ahead and ban single-use plastics."
Other RTM members and First Selectman Dan Steward have expressed reservations or opposition to a plastic bag ban. Steward previously said fees or bans would "additionally damage the economic situation in southeastern Connecticut ... when Crystal Mall, Stop & Shop, Walmart, Lowe's, Home Depot ... are our residents and taxpayers."
Jake Johnson, owner of Jake's Diner on State Street in New London, said he feared the proposed ban on Styrofoam containers could hurt his takeout business, which relies on sales of fried foods, soups and items with gravies.
"For big grocery stores, it's one thing, but for small restaurants, it's different. If I've got to do away with plastic containers, it's going to be a hit," he said Friday.
Steinberg acknowledged it could be another year or so before the ban on Styrofoam containers is enacted, noting cost-effective solutions for small businesses can be hard to come by. But he was encouraged that when Westport officials this year began examining a potential ban on plastic straws, many restaurants had "already started transitioning" to paper or metal straws, while keeping small amounts of plastic straws for those who request them.
"The momentum is there," Steinberg said.
Major grocers like Stop & Shop sell reusable tote bags as part of efforts to remove plastics from the waste stream; Stop & Shop says it's removed 1 billion plastic bags since 2011.
Many local restaurants have given up plastic straws in favor of paper or metal ones, and Mystic Seaport Museum recently announced an environmental stewardship campaign to use plant-based straws, paper shopping bags and to-go containers, and strands of pasta instead of plastic stirrers.