Why environmentalists want Delaware to ban all plastic shopping bags and charge for paper ones
Lawmakers have pledged to further restrict plastic shopping bags in Delaware stores, but some environmental advocates don't think their plans go far enough.
Delaware put a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags at larger stores starting Jan. 1.
It was meant to encourage stores and shoppers to switch to reusable bags in order to curb environmental waste, but many stores have found what critics call a "loophole" in the law by simply replacing the thin plastic bags with thicker ones, or providing paper bags instead.
Even though the bags can be reused, shoppers don't appear to be remembering to bring them back on their second, third or 20th trip to the store — especially if they know a bag will still be available at the checkout line.
Environmental advocates and officials say thicker plastic bags and paper bags are not any better for the environment, especially if they are not reused.
In response, lawmakers are drafting a new bill to further restrict what kind of bags can be used. Right now, the ban allows bags thicker than 2.25 mils, as well as paper shopping bags.
Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, told Delaware Online/The News Journal that he plans to introduce a bill to ban plastic bags thinner than 10 mils. Officials are also said to be considering a ban on paper shopping bags.
But environmentalists want lawmakers to think bigger, worrying that simply upping the thickness could result in stores giving out even thicker bags for free instead of chucking them altogether.
Instead, they're pushing for a complete ban on plastic shopping bags.
They also want lawmakers to put a fee on paper bags, which they say would incentivize shoppers to think twice about purchasing it and incentivize them to remember to bring their reusable bag instead.
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Avoiding more loopholes
Dee Durham, one of the founders and chairs of the pro-ban group Plastic Free Delaware, said lawmakers should consider mimicking New Jersey's plastic bag ban, which exempts reusable plastic carryout bags with stitched handles. Many supermarket chains sell those bags, which cost about $1.
Delaware Democrats plan to require stitched handles with Brady’s bill, according to a House spokesman.
The provision would avoid further loopholes, Durham said.
"We just want to make sure there's no question out there about what defines a reusable bag," she said. "To my knowledge, there are no bag manufacturers that are making single-use disposable bags in 10 mils. But I think we just want to make sure."
Her group would prefer stores and shoppers to switch to natural compostable materials.
"The problem is jute and cotton and hemp bags tend to be typically more expensive than the reusable plastic bags," she said. "So we don't want to eliminate the lower-cost options. But we do want to make sure that they're not what's being used now by some of the stores."
Durham also hopes lawmakers can expand the ban to smaller stores, which are not subject to the restrictions and can still offer single-use bags.
Right now, the ban applies to stores that are either 7,000 square feet or bigger or, if there are three or more Delaware locations, at least 3,000 square feet each. Stores such as Home Depot, Big Lots, CVS and Famous Footwear are some examples of stores that are subject to the ban.
While Durham supports a paper bag fee, she doesn't expect it to have enough support in the General Assembly, so a full ban is the next best thing, she said.
"It's sort of like the smoking ban," she said. "There was a lot of hoopla ahead of time but then, once it went into effect, it's like 'OK, we can live with this, we understand and it's a good thing.'"
Lawmakers tried to ban paper bags last legislative session but were unsuccessful.
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'We got snookered'
Other environmentalists like Cheryl Siskin, a conservation advocate with the Delaware chapter of the Sierra Club, are frustrated because stores were expected to charge fees for the 2.25-mil bags instead of simply giving them out.
"I feel like we got snookered, tricked," Siskin said. "It didn't happen the way we were told it would happen."
There's no guarantee that some stores won't just give away even thicker bags if lawmakers require 10 mils of thickness, she said.
Other environmentalists say the state has fallen short of educating residents about the importance of the bag ban.
"We need to ensure that the public is well educated on what kind of bags are available, remind them of the importance of bringing their own bags to the store, the damage that plastics do to our waterways and environment, and educate them on the roughly 200 recycling sites around the state where bags can be recycled," said Delaware Natural Society spokesperson Emily Knearl in an emailed statement.
It's possible that Brady's proposal to ban bags under 10 mils of thickness, which has not been introduced as a bill yet, could change before he files it.
Lawmakers are running out of time to pass such a bill, too. The legislative session runs until June 30. After that, the General Assembly goes on a six-month break.
Some stores have stopped using plastic bags altogether.
Wawa, which is subject to the ban, now sells reusable non-woven polypropylene bags at checkout.
The chain plans to "significantly reduce single-use paper and plastic bags in all of our stores" over the next year and a half, Wawa spokesperson Lori Bruce wrote in an emailed statement.
It's unclear how larger grocery chains feel about the proposal. Delaware Online/The News Journal reached out to Giant Food, Acme and ShopRite, but none of them immediately responded.
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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.