Plastic bag bans gain steam in liberal states

New Democratic majorities in several New England state legislatures are debating bans on plastic grocery bags, straws and styrofoam containers, kicking off a high-stakes lobbying fight between environmental groups and an industry that employs nearly 25,000 Americans across the country.

New York legislators over the weekend passed a massive state budget that includes a ban on most single-use plastic bags. The provision will ban grocery stores, big box stores and most retailers from using plastic bags beginning in March 2020, though there are some exceptions for restaurants and bags that hold meat or prescription drugs.

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Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) asked legislators to consider banning plastic bags by the beginning of next year. A state Senate committee is sifting through 18 different bills with varying degrees of exemptions, taxes and outright bans.

The Washington state Senate passed a ban on plastic bags earlier this year. The measure passed a committee in the state House, where it awaits a final vote.

And legislators in Vermont and Massachusetts are moving toward their own bag bans. Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony on Tuesday about their version of the bill.

“People are becoming much more aware of what’s going on environmentally, with the increased consumption of plastic bags. We’re getting more and more reports from conservationists and environmental working groups that are telling us this is really a problem,” said Christine Cohen, the Connecticut state senator leading the bag ban push. “It’s a new dawn of recognizing gosh, we really have a problem here.”

Just one state, California, has a statewide ban on plastic bags in place. Hawaii has a de facto ban — all of its local governments ban plastic bags, though there is no formal statewide ban. 

This year, at least 91 bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country relating to plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most relate to banning bags or enacting a fee, similar to the five-cent fee Washington, D.C., enacted in 2010.

Those states are catching up with cities that have taken the most aggressive action. Big cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle have banned plastic bags. New York City, Montgomery County, Md., and Boulder, Colo., have all followed Washington’s example in slapping a fee on plastic bags.

Even in states moving toward limiting plastic bags, the contours of those new rules are in dispute. Legislators debate whether to ban bags outright, or to simply tax them; whether to provide exemptions for retail stores of varying sizes; and whether to slap fees on plastic alternatives like paper in order to incentivize less use across the board.

“We’re sort of caught in this limbo of what’s the best path forward. Retailers want a piece of that money, environmental groups want a piece of that money, the state wants a piece of that money,” Cohen said. “Are you ultimately disincentivizing use, or are you just slapping on a tax?”

But it is not clear whether plastic bag bans enacted in cities across the country — and in some nations around the world — have the desired effect. Paper bags can be more energy-intensive to produce, and plastic bags are able to carry more weight for the amount of material they contain, said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group.

“That little bit of material is the key to all of this in that you’ve got the least amount of material going into the manufacturing process, the least amount of energy that goes into the manufacturing process,” Seaholm said. “Paper’s thicker, it’s heavier, it’s bulkier, it’s going to take up more space in landfills.”

About 25,000 people work in plastic bag manufacturing facilities across the country, according to the industry’s data. Plastic accounts for less than half of 1 percent of all the solid waste in landfills, and about three-quarters of plastic grocery bags are reused, largely as garbage can liners or other waste receptacles.

As more cities have turned to bag bans, the industry has pushed back with statewide bills to preempt localities from implementing their own bans.

Legislators in 11 mostly Republican-controlled states have passed preemption legislation. Cities in Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan all prohibit local ordinances relating to plastic bags.

“I think everybody agrees that statewide policies would be best, because a patchwork of ordinances doesn’t work for everybody,” Seaholm said.

This year, legislators in North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia — all states run by Republican legislatures and Republican governors — are considering implementing new preemption rules.

At least one state with a preemption rule, Minnesota, is considering legislation to roll it back. Several mayors in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area told legislators this week they wanted the ability to ban single-use bags on their own.

A similar bill in the Minnesota state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, has not been scheduled for a vote.