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Will Connecticut have buyer’s remorse on bag ban?

As a wave of environmentally conscious communities and states try to kiss nonbiodegradable plastic bags goodbye with bans and taxes, a fight is brewing over whether shoppers and the environment are getting the best bargain.

Environmental groups and the state grocer industry largely applauded a measure approved this year that will see Connecticut retailers charge a 10-cent tax on the bags starting Aug. 1, followed by an outright ban in 2021. The groups said the move, similar to decisions made by lawmakers in California, New York and Hawaii, would particularly help protect wildlife in area waterways.

But last year, a Danish Ministry of Environment and Food study designed to identify the grocery bag with the best environmental performance found that "with regards to production and disposal," low-density polyethylene plastic bags provide "the overall lowest environmental impacts" on a range of indicators, including ozone depletion, ecosystem toxicity and particulate matter pollution.

The Danish study, a life cycle assessment, showed that reusable plastic bags and paper bags must be reused dozens of times to provide the same environmental footprint as the average thin grocery bag. To have the same environmental impact as lightweight plastic bags, cotton totes must be reused thousands of times because of the energy, water, land and fertilizer required to produce them, the study found.

NPR earlier this year reported that in research published in January in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Rebecca Taylor of the University of Sydney, Australia, found that California's elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic following grocery bag bans in 100-plus communities was partially offset by an additional 12 million pounds of plastic from ramped up sales of unregulated, thicker plastic trash bags.

"There are a lot of unintended consequences" with bag bans and fees, said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry. "There's an increase in costs for small businesses, an increase in the import of reusable bags that's not better for the environment, and an increase in garbage bag sales. At some point there might be buyer's remorse with these types of policies."

In addition to causing increased paper bag production — which relies on more water and emits double the greenhouse gases of plastic grocery bags — the APBA argues taxes and bans could have an economic impact on stores, customers and the nearly 30,000 workers in the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry in 40 states. None of the group's members is based in Connecticut, Seaholm said.

Seaholm noted he made a couple trips to Hartford to fight against the state's push toward a ban, arguing that polyethylene bags — properly recycled after being brought back to retailers — find new life as playground and construction materials, or new plastic bags. The bags are "very visible," Seaholm acknowledged, but studies by the EPA and some states show they amount to less than 1 percent of all litter and municipal waste. He said some Connecticut lawmakers listened but it "became the politically expedient thing for them to just pass the ban and call it a day."

"We don't want to see any of our products up in a tree or in a waterway," Seaholm said. "That's why we offer recycling takeback programs. Our members are the ones that pioneered those programs; they did it on their own as part of their sustainability goals. There's a natural infrastructure there, with pallet-wrap, dry cleaner bags, ice bags, Amazon pouches, these are the types of things that can be collected and recycled."

Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the General Assembly's Environment Committee, acknowledged in an interview that paper bags and garbage bags have an environmental impact. But she said the goal of the Connecticut measure is to protect wildlife and humans by encouraging shoppers to purchase their own reusable bags and remember to bring them to the store.

"Old habits die hard," Cohen said. She credited grocers like Big Y, who are eliminating single-use plastic bags altogether and implementing a 10-cent fee on paper bags, while "letting customers know at the checkout that they can get discounted reusable bags."

Big Y, in a statement earlier this month, noted the paper bag fee was to encourage reusable bags "instead of paper, which also causes harm to the environment." Cohen and Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, note paper bags cost at least 7 cents more than the plastic bags, so it makes economic sense for stores to discourage their production and distribution.

Bill Lucey, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound Soundkeeper, said overall "science is telling us that reducing plastics in our environment is urgent."

"Conducting a real lifecycle analysis of the environmental impacts of different types of bags, from origin materials, to manufacturing, to use, to disposal, is very important," he said. "However, we shouldn't be paralyzed into inaction while waiting for such analyses. Where strong laws increase bottle bills and bag bans, there is a corresponding drop in trash that washes up on beaches."

Last year, volunteers picked up more than 1,000 plastic grocery bags along the Connecticut shoreline during the International Coastal Cleanup, Lucey said previously. The bags often block the stomachs of marine life, causing starvation, and they also can clog sewer pipes, "leading to standing water and associated health hazards," Lucey said.

Judy Benson, communications coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant, noted that while the carbon footprint of manufacturing paper bags is an issue, paper bags are at least biodegradable. She argued that paper and reusable bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic.

"They are not perfect; no one is claiming that," she said. "But 'don't let the idea of perfection get in the way of the possible' is the operative phrase here. We have to encourage people to do what they can now, small improvements rather than giving up altogether and taking no responsibility."

Connecticut Sea Grant, Long Island Sound Study, Mystic Aquarium, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, The Nature Conservancy, SoundWaters and Connecticut Audubon Society plan to kick off a "Break the Single-Use Plastic Habit" campaign on Thursday, Aug. 8. In last year's campaign, in addition to posting on social media about the amount of plastic in marine waters, youths in Mystic Aquarium's summer camps cleaned beaches littered with water bottles, fast-food drinking cups, cigarette butts, packaging and cutlery.

Seaholm said the APBA wasn't waging a losing battle, noting out of the nearly 40,000 municipalities across the U.S., only 350 have enacted some type of bag regulation. Too often, he argued, "what's missing from these debates is actual scientific data."

"There's certainly a lot of noise out there," he said. "But we're continuing to educate on recycling and sustainability. I don't know that this is a situation where the story is complete. The discussion will continue and we'll continue to be a part of it."


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