Proposed bag ban gives retailers, grocers another year

Hartford — The latest proposal to eliminate single-use plastic bags from checkout lines across the state — and, in turn, the waste stream and Connecticut waterways — gives retailers an additional year to put the ban in place, lawmakers announced this week.

Senate Bill 1003, as introduced earlier this year, would have prohibited stores from offering the nonbiodegradable bags starting next January. But an amended proposal announced Wednesday by Environment Committee Co-Chairs state Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, and Rep. Mike Demicco, D-Farmington, calls for a statewide ban beginning July 1, 2021, with Cohen saying the bill ensures "that our environment and wildlife are not harmed by plastic bags and provides Connecticut's businesses with enough time to find environmentally conscious alternatives."

Environmentalists and the Connecticut Food Association, whose members operate about 300 retail food stores and 135 pharmacies, expressed support for the measure, which could be up for a vote in the state Senate within days.

"Single-use plastic bags are a huge source of pollution in our cities, our suburbs, and our open spaces. They're a threat to our oceans, our wildlife, and our quality of life," Amanda Schoen, deputy director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, said Thursday. "Towns and cities across Connecticut have passed their own bans, but we cannot afford to take a piecemeal approach. A statewide ban will provide clarity for businesses while also reducing waste. It is a win-win for everyone."

More than two dozen Connecticut communities, including Waterford, Stonington and Groton, have considered bans, and several local restaurants have given up plastic straws in favor of paper or metal ones. Mystic Seaport Museum 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. New York, California and Hawaii already have enacted statewide bans, and Rhode Island is considering one.

"In my eyes, a state ban is preferable to a town ban, as it will both remove more plastic bags from our local ecosystems and remove concerns about negative economic impacts on local businesses," Waterford Representative Town Meeting member Joshua Steele Kelly said Thursday. Kelly added that he remains "cautiously optimistic" the proposal will become law and described Waterford's inaction on the subject for more than a year as inexcusable.

The proposed statewide 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," and stores could be slapped with $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.

The bill allows municipalities to enact their own ordinances regarding the bags, so long as the ordinances are "as restrictive" or 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 those excluded from the ban.

Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, noted the law could pair with Gov. Ned Lamont's proposal for a 10-cent fee on the bags, potentially producing about "$30 million in revenue to the budget before an eventual phase-out of all single-use plastic bags is complete."

Based on CFA's research, more than 600 million plastic bags are distributed in Connecticut annually, only 5 percent of which are disposed of properly, with "far too many (ending) up in the wrong places: coastal waterways, recycling facilities and incinerators," Pesce said Thursday.

Last year, volunteers snatched up more than 1,000 plastic grocery bags along the shoreline during the International Coastal Cleanup, according to Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound Soundkeeper Bill Lucey.

Lucey recently said that the bags and large pieces of plastic "can choke wildlife and fill the stomachs of whales, birds and turtles, causing starvation. They eventually are 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."

Pesce said CFA's "goal all along was to have a policy meant to change consumer behavior with the hope that the vast majority of consumers will utilize reusable bags. This law will accomplish that. Over the next two years, it will eliminate the production, distribution and usage of over 80 percent of all single-use bags distributed in Connecticut, reducing in its wake more than 450 million plastic bags."

Pesce added that CFA's member organizations recognize that increased paper production — which emits greenhouse gasses and leads to deforestation — isn't a real solution.

"The most sustainable option for consumers is the use of reusable bags that should be washed regularly with soap and water or wiped clean with a disinfectant wipe," he said. "Connecticut's grocers will continue working to get as many reusable bags into customers' hands during the transition through promotions, giveaways and rewards."

In a statement, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment noted that single-use paper bags pose an environmental risk, as well, with 14 million trees cut down annually and paper bags taking up even more space than plastic bags in the municipal solid waste stream.

Jennifer Brogan, director of external communications & community relations for Stop & Shop, on Thursday also encouraged customers to use reusable bags. Brogan said the grocer shares "customers' concerns regarding the environmental consequences of plastic waste and are actively working on ways to reduce our impact as a brand."

Stop & Shop and parent company Ahold Delhaize have removed 1 billion plastic bags from the waste stream in recent years and are part of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, so by 2025, "all our plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable" and the store will eliminate all "unnecessary single-use plastics" in favor of reusable alternatives, Brogan said.

b.kail@theday.com

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