Paper or Plastic: How Other Communities Are Addressing the Issue

By GINA G. SCALA | Jan 24, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Paper or plastic? Shoppers used to hear that question regularly until plastic overtook paper as the bag of choice at stores across the nation more than two decades ago. Now, paper is making a sort of comeback as more communities move away from single-use plastic bags.

Locally, Long Beach Township is the first municipality in the state to adopt an ordinance prohibiting the commercial use of carryout bags. The ban is expected to go into effect May 1. Ocean City adopted a measure in 2015 charging 10 cents for a carryout bag.

Other communities, locally and around the nation, are starting to follow the lead of California, the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide ban when, in 2014, legislators there voted to prohibit the use of carryout bags at large grocery stores, pharmacies and corner markets. Their action was challenged by the plastics industry, which included a push from plastic bag makers in New Jersey, South Carolina and Texas, to the tune of about $6 million, to overturn it. In a November 2016 referendum vote, California voters upheld the measure with 52 percent of the tally. Hawaii is the only other state to have a statewide ban.

“It’s a non-issue,” Jennifer Ott-Rol, a recycling specialist from the city of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department, said recently of life without single-use plastic bags in a community that saw 34.9 million tourists in 2016. “Tourists are the reason to do a plastic bag ban, not the reason not to do one. Plastic bags on beaches (or elsewhere) impacts the tourist’s experience. That’s the issue.”

In California, paper bags or reusable bags are available to tourists, or those who might have forgotten their own bags, for 10 cents, she said. The reusable bags offered in San Diego are thicker than what the law requires so they feel a little more valuable, she said, noting the 10-cent cost for a paper bag is to cover the cost of production, which requires more fuel.

“It’s seen as a deterrent,” she said, adding the city had conducted a yearlong environmental impact study, as required by state law. San Diego was actually the 150th city in the state to adopt a ban, just a few months before the issue went before voters in 2016.

Still, San Diego began investigating the issue years before the ban went into effect. The city’s individual ban was null and void after the state enacted a statewide ban.

Part of getting people on board was a community outreach program that included giving away roughly 25,000 reusable bags, some that were donated by Sea World, Ott-Rol said. The city also provided bags to the area food banks, and was out in the community talking with stakeholders about the ban.

“The media was really interested,” she said, noting the free publicity helped, even though a neighborhood market association was against the ban. ”We had threats of litigation, but there were no grounds.”

She credits the comprehensive 300-page environmental impact study as the reason litigation against the city never went anywhere. And, she said, national stores were in favor of a statewide ban since it made their policy-making decisions easier because of the consistent requirements.

“Involve the stakeholders,” she said. “Make sure all of the concerns are heard. That’s the way it should work.”

That’s what officials in Brunswick, Maine, did, according to John Eldridge, town manager.

“Retailers were contacted directly and then, in addition to the mandatory public hearing, there were several public information sessions where the public was invited to ask questions about the proposal,” he said, noting an advocacy group pushed the initiative in Brunswick and surrounding communities.

In the end, Brunswick debated two options, a 5-cent bag fee or an outright ban. The ban went into effect in September 2017 and the town has heard few complaints, he said, attributing the ban’s passage to the sensitivity most people in that community and state seem to have for environmental protections and sustainable practices.

“It works,” Bisbee, Ariz., Mayor David Smith said earlier this week, noting the cactus flags, as blowing plastic bags are called in that state, had disappeared from the landscape. However, the state stepped in last fall and declared Bisbee’s measure unlawful, forcing local officials to amend the ordinance barring commercial use of single-use plastic bags to customers by making the mandatory measure voluntary, Since then, “the bags are blowing around again.”

Several States

Prohibiting Local Bans

Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri have outlawed the prohibiting of plastic bags by local governments.

Bisbee, a former mining town 92 miles southeast of Tucson, is a community rich with art, music, history and architecture. In October, the city government was put on notice by the state attorney general that it had to repeal its embargo or the state would withhold its state-shared tax revenue, about a quarter of its annual budget.

The attorney general’s investigation was initiated at the behest of Arizona state Sen. Warren Petersen, who argued such regulations increase costs for businesses. In its report, the attorney general’s office found Bisbee’s ban was unlawful under a law that allows the state to withhold tax revenue from cities that pass ordinances that conflict with state law.

That state law prevents a city, town or county from regulating the sale, use or disposition of plastic bags and other auxiliary containers by an owner, operator or tenant of a business, commercial building or multi-family housing, according to a summary of the measure by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s the very existence of a small town still recovering from a recession,” Mayor Smith said of the $1.2 million the town receives from money collected by things like highway users and divided by population. “We would die without state-shared revenue. The legislators, with heavy lobbying, said the city didn’t have the authority.”

Smith said the law was enacted because plastic bags were a problem in the community. In the beginning, there were a few business owners who weren’t happy, but then suddenly a new customer-base found them.

“It was like ‘I am going to shop here because you’re really cool and are saving sea turtles,” he said.

Grocery store chains and other retailers didn’t necessarily like the ban, but they went along with it, he said. In fact, Safeway, a supermarket chain, committed to using only paper bags, he said. Just this week, however, the mayor said, the supermarket began handing out plastic bags. Town officials were expected to reach out to Safeway.

In the meantime, Smith said he planned to begin a campaign of taking pictures of the “growing number of plastic tree and cactus flags since our extortion from the state took effect. For those that care – about plastic bags but most about local rights – start taking photos of the ‘flags’ and picking up those bags. We will put them together and send them to our Senate president and Sen. Griffin with a thank-you note.”

Idaho state officials cited its ban prohibiting the barring of plastic bags as a pro-business measure. It prevents cities and counties from regulating or taxing carryout bags or other auxiliary containers. The law went into effect in July 2016. Such matters, according to Idaho House Bill 372, can be performed only by state officials.

The Missouri legislature passed a measure that allows all merchants doing businesses in the state the ability to use either paper or plastic bags. It also inhibits local governments from enacting a ban, fee or tax on either plastic or paper bags, according to a summary of the bill by the National Conference of Legislatures.

Back at Home

In New Jersey

Assembly Bill 2396, which calls for the decrease of and eventual ban on use of the non-compostable plastic grocery bags, has stalled. The bill called for a 5-cent fee starting last June for everyone but senior citizens and government assistance users. New York’s ban was also stonewalled.

None of this prevented Stafford Township resident Joe Mangino from issuing an informal poll on his Stafford Teachers and Residents Together Facebook page this week. Stafford officials could introduce an ordinance prohibiting the single-use plastic bags at its Feb. 13 meeting, and adopt it on its second reading two weeks later. If that happens, the measure would become effective 20 days later, as required by law. Township officials indicated there would be a phase-in period for businesses.

“I was shocked,” Mangino said earlier this week. “I thought it would be 60 to 70 percent in favor, but it was 51 in favor and 49 against.”

Mangino is monitoring comments on social media, and has seen some comments about a single-use plastic bag ban causing a hardship for businesses. But he doesn’t believe such a measure would divide the community.

Chances are, he said, the next time residents go to a community event they will walk away with at least a few free reusable bags from vendors. Whether it’s an indication of a move away from plastic bags or a trend in subliminal advertising, canvas and other reusable bags are becoming a common giveaway at all types of events. In fact, one of the comments on the his Stafford Teachers and Residents Together Facebook page suggested offering reusable bags for a school fundraiser.

If remembering to put the bags back in your car after use is a problem, Mangino said he keeps about 10 bags in his car and brings five into a store with him, so even if he doesn’t remember to put the five bags in his car again, he still has bags for shopping.

“I support the bag ban,” Mangino said. “This is something I am passionate about, so I will be following up, and I plan on attending a council meeting to share my findings.”

In addition to the Stafford Teachers and Residents Together group he help found after Superstorm Sandy, he is also a founding member of the N.J. Organizing Project and is active with its offshoot project, Shorekeeper, and will be reporting to them about this issue, he said.


Comments (1)
Posted by: Linda M Bleeke | Feb 01, 2018 11:07

NJ should also seriously consider have a bottle return charge for all plastic/glass bottles.  Many states have this in place already.  NJ should join as well.

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