RALEIGH — This summer, a Canadian grocery store took the war on plastic bags to the next level.
Vancouver’s East West Market not only charges 5 cents per plastic bag, but the bags also carry embarrassing messages: saying things such as “Dr. Toews’ Wart Ointment Wholesale,” “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium,” and “The Colon Care Co-op,” The Guardian writes.
Moves to ban plastic bags are commonplace around the world. Even al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists have picked up on the trend. A Somalia-based group, Al-Shabaab, says it’s banning plastic bags as “a serious threat to the well-being of humans and animals alike.”
Irony notwithstanding, efforts to ban plastic bags are controversial, and moves to ban the bags in North Carolina have raised constitutional concerns.
In Durham, that city’s Environmental Advisory Board recently endorsed the idea of charging 10 cents for every plastic and paper bag customers carry out of stores. The proposal came from Don’t Waste Durham, a grass-roots group that, its website says, “creates solutions that prevent trash.” Several City Council committees and the full council would have to approve the fee before it takes effect.
Andy Ellen, president and general counsel for the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, says the fee is akin to a tax, and he points to a constitutional provision giving the General Assembly — not local governments — sole authority to levy taxes.
Ellen adds that while retailers in the state aim for environmental friendliness, bag restrictions complicate things for consumers.
“At the end of the day, retailers have adopted many of the sustainability goals and are trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible,” Ellen said. “And they encourage people to recycle bags and bring in reusable bags, but we ultimately know we’re going to do what the customer asks us to do.”
Michelle Nowlin is co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University School of Law. Nowlin, who presented research to the Durham EAB before it approved the proposal, rejects the unconstitutionality claim. She says the proposal would pass legally under the Waste Management Act, which grants generous authority to local governments regarding waste control.
In 2017, state lawmakers scrapped a similar provision on plastic bags from 2009 affecting several Outer Banks communities.
Advocates touted the 2009 plan, S.B. 1018, as reducing waste and protecting wildlife on the coast. Opponents said it was unconstitutional, since the General Assembly is prohibited from regulating trade or passing resolutions related to health or sanitation for particular localities.
Nowlin and other advocates laud bag restrictions because they correlate with less plastic litter on streets and in streams. The measure also saves money at recycling facilities, she said, because the plastic won’t gum up the conveyor belts.
“We’ve gotten into the habit of convenience and disposability,” she said. “If we’re going to really take seriously the need to improve the environment, we need to get away from that disposable mentality.”
Businesses and consumers like plastic bags because they’re thin, durable, and incredibly cheap. There’s a reason the number of stores using plastic bags skyrocketed from 10% to 75% within two years in the 1980s, as people realized they’re about 11.5% cheaper than paper, Reason reported.
Banning plastic bags, or charging for them, simply doesn’t work, says Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.
For one thing, people don’t necessarily throw away their “single use” plastic bags after the first use. People use them for garbage or dog waste. With a prohibitive fee or ban, people have to buy more store-bought garbage bags, which are usually made of thicker plastic and are more harmful to the environment.
Reusable cloth bags also come with their own problems, Sanders said. A Danish study shows it would take 7,100 reuses of a regular cotton bag to exceed the environmental impact of a single plastic bag reuse.
Cloth bags also tend to carry bacteria, which can lead to illness: imagine leaking a package of raw chicken into a reusable bag and forgetting to wash it before placing fresh produce in it on the next grocery trip.
A study by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that reusable bags are rarely washed, and most of them contain large amounts of bacteria. The researchers found coliform bacteria in half of the bags and e. Coli in 12%.
And when someone gets sick, it’s not the consumer who gets the blame.
“If you have an item that’s stored properly all through the chain of custody, and you get to the customer and they put it in a reusable bag and get sick, the restaurant or retailer is the one whose reputation is damaged,” Ellen said.