Maine had set Earth Day 2020 as the start date for the plastic bag ban. But after the pandemic, the state gave struggling companies a chance to stick to it until July.
Now that the momentum is already waning, some lawmakers want to lift the ban.
They took advantage of the delay to write three laws that would lift the ban altogether. While the Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources voted to keep the ban, the issue will continue to reach the legislature as a whole and ignite the flames of repeal efforts.
Maine Republican Jeffrey Hanley, who opposes the ban on bags, said the governor’s decision to delay implementation was an example for opponents to build on.
“The people who sponsored these bills found that they had been cut for a year, so let’s move on,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittston, Maine. He noted that the “bag ban” effort “has been going on for eight years” before it was finalized and that opinions are still divided among state lawmakers and constituents.
“The argument is that everyone is panicking about something that is not real,” he said, claiming that pockets are not a major problem in the rural northern part of the state he represents.
The plastic bag elimination movement had advanced in recent years, and states from New York to California banned it. The bags – a source of pollution, a hazard to wildlife and a risk of disruption to automatic recycling machines – have been identified as a threat by environmental groups.
But the pandemic fueled critics and the plastics industry who cited supply problems and fears of germ transmission early in the crisis and now argue that bag bans are weighing on companies in trouble.
Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a group in the plastics industry, told the Maine Committee that the state “should lift its ban on plastic bags, evaluate alternative approaches to meet the state’s sustainability goals, and possibly one should consider other policies when the pandemic is behind us. “
However, supporters say Maine and other states should maintain the bans as they represent a significant step in reducing fossil fuel dependency and limiting climate change.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s understandable that there will be temporary adjustments and priorities to deal with the immediate emergency, but in the long run the climate crisis is like a moving train still going down the track,” said Eric Goldstein, senior executive Lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.
“There are several actions that need to be taken to slow the effects and avert the worst effects. One of them is reducing the amount of disposable plastics, which are not only a major source of pollution but also a financial anchor for the fossil fuel industry. ”
A similar situation is playing out in Philadelphia, where it took more than a decade to introduce a ban on plastic bags.
The Philadelphia ban, approved in 2019, was due to begin on July 1, 2020. However, with businesses tightly restricted and restaurants relying on takeout to stay afloat, city officials pushed it first January 1, 2021 and then July 1 due to the delay caused by the pandemic, some state lawmakers want that Lift the ban altogether.
Pennsylvania lawmakers added a provision to a bill last summer prohibiting cities from unilaterally imposing a bag ban.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican whose district has a plastic bag factory, has long fought against the bag ban and used the pandemic to bolster his stance during last summer’s debate.
A spokesman for Corman told local NPR affiliates that the senator believes that “now is not the time to ban plastic bags made from recycled materials when grocery stores have actually banned shoppers because of concerns about the spread of the virus.” to bring reusable bags to stores. ”
Philadelphia, Lower Merion Township and the West Chester and Narberth counties, where all plastic bag prohibition laws are enacted or pending, sued Pennsylvania for “state pre-emptive” local laws. Philadelphia continues its plans pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
Plastic bag fees, as well as fees for other types of plastic, have been imposed in many countries to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags to stores and restaurants.
Eight states and many jurisdictions have plastic bag laws on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California, which led the way with a 2016 ban on single-use plastic bags, temporarily overturned the ordinance in April 2020 due to COVID-19, but brought it back 60 days later.
Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York, and Oregon have bans on plastic bags. Hawaii has a de facto nationwide ban on bags as most of its jurisdictions do but no state law, and Vermont’s ban includes restrictions on disposable straws and styrofoam containers, according to the NCSL record. Hawaii’s most populous city, Honolulu, also bans other single-use items like plastic forks.
In Massachusetts, where many communities have banned single-use plastic bags, Republican Governor Charlie Baker banned people from bringing their own bags into stores and lifted local bag restrictions in March 2020. But by July, he reversed course and allowed cities to reinstate them by banning plastic bags.
Washington State has passed a bag ban, but pushed back on implementation due to the pandemic. With the pandemic came fears of virus transmission through surfaces of reusable bags.
The Association of the Plastics Industry wrote a letter last March calling on the Federal Ministry of Health and Human Services to explain the safety of plastic bags. He argued that plastics were “the most hygienic choice” and claimed that reusable bags “carry viruses and bacteria”. The department never took this stance.
During the pandemic, public health officials focused on precautions against airborne transmission rather than surface transmission.
“As of March last year, we really didn’t know much about COVID-19 and how it was transmitted,” said Jennie Romer, an attorney with the Surfrider environmental group in San Clemente, California. “The plastics industry letter was based on studies … the American Chemistry Council paid to study bacteria in reusable bags. The study said people should wash reusable bags like anything else. “
In addition, the plastics industry used the problems caused by the pandemic to reinforce their argument that bans and charges on plastic bags, as well as restrictions on other single-use plastics, harm businesses and affect public choice, even in the no-pandemic period.
Taylor of the Plastic Bag Alliance said the time is now “for a broader discussion about whether these [bag ban] Guidelines are provided for companies when trying to get out of the pandemic or when they need to remain flexible. “
“From our point of view, the delays have shown that there is an important place for them in the market [plastic] Bags, ”he said in a telephone interview. “People have changed their behavior, bought food differently and ordered more to take away.”
But while environmental groups generally accepted moratoria on bag bans at the start of the pandemic and understood the strain all businesses were under, most are calling for the laws to be restored soon.
“Because of the pandemic, there has been a temporary pause in the momentum of tote bag laws in the US due to the pandemic,” said Surfriders Romer. “The plastics industry has been grappling with the issue, doing a lot of media and reaching out to lawmakers to say that reusable bags would transmit the virus. We had to do a lot of work to combat these claims. “
Like several other communities in Pennsylvania, Bethlehem had considered a bag ban, but pushed the issue into the background after the pandemic.
“I personally think [bag bans] are very difficult, ”said Lisa Dell’Alba, 42, who runs a chain of seven family-owned convenience stores in Pennsylvania based in Bethlehem.
When a ban went into effect, she said, “Our plan was for customers to use their own bags, but in a supermarket? Not only that, but often when people walk into stores with large bags, not because they’re environmentally conscious, but because they are planning to steal things. “
With the pandemic already affecting business, a bag regulation in her stores, Square One Markets, would “certainly be very difficult to navigate,” she said.
Currently, she said, plastic bags are on sale in their stores. About half of the customers take them.
Washington State’s ban was due to go into effect last January, but Democratic Governor Jay Inslee delayed implementation until the state of emergency ends. Paper and plastic bags, as well as other alternatives to disposable bags, are not available in sufficient quantities. “
A bill going through Washington lawmakers would postpone the ban until July 1st.
Democratic MP Strom Peterson, who has campaigned for the plastic bag ban for a decade, said in a telephone interview that the bill had stung. But he said he understood the problems facing the grocery and grocery industries, partly because he has been running Cheesemonger’s Table, a soup and sandwich restaurant in Edmonds, Washington, for 20 years.
“We all agreed that we had to do this temporarily, as much as it hurt us,” he said. “We are ready to do this when everyone can take a breath and the supply chain is normalized.”
But Logan Welde, legislative director of the Clean Air Council, an environmental group, disagreed. In a phone interview, he said that even during the pandemic, the implementation of the plastic bans would have made things easier, not harder, for businesses as people continued to bring their own bags to stores.
“New York is like night and day,” he said. “You used to see plastic bags everywhere. You won’t see any plastic bags after the ban. When you see one it’s like an experience. When these laws are in place, they are effective. “
He said it was straightforward to get people to bring their own bags, even to run restaurants.
“The easiest ways to solve the environmental crisis are the simplest things, like bringing your own bag,” he said. “If it rains we bring our own umbrella, don’t we?”
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