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Plastic bag ban brings costs for businesses, consumers

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By Marcus Dieterle
Contributing Writer

Starting Jan. 1, large and chain grocery stores, pharmacies, and retail stores in Delaware will no longer be allowed to provide thin, single-use plastic bags to customers for many items.

Business advocates worry the plastic bag ban could put another strain on beleaguer stores amid the pandemic. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SAINDUR ENVIRO/ UNSPLASHED

The ban affects stores with more than 7,000 square feet of retail space and chain stores with three or more Delaware locations of at least 3,000 square feet of retail space. Restaurants will not be included in the new law.

The law includes some exceptions for damp products, like frozen foods, meat, and flowers; live fish and insects; unwrapped food items; and caustic chemicals as well as dry cleaning bags. But for other items, stores will provide paper bags or reusable bags, either for purchase or at no charge to the customer.

Julie Miro Wenger, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council (DFIC), a trade association for grocery stores, told Delaware Business Times that her organization supports the plastic bag ban itself but is concerned about the timing of its implementation during the ongoing pandemic.

The DFIC asked Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to delay the ban for six months, but the law is going forward as planned to start 2021.

Miro Wenger said stores already have signage about masks and social distancing, and she is worried about them having to make customers aware of the plastic bag ban on top of COVID-19 guidelines.

“It takes some education, and we were hoping that we wouldn’t have to do that at the same time that we are having lines outside of our stores with reduced capacity,” she said.

ShopRite spokesperson Daniel Emmer told DBT that the company is using store signs and Facebook posts to remind customers to “Plan for the Ban” by bringing their own reusable bags. ShopRite customers will also be able to buy thicker reusable plastic bags at checkout for 10 cents each.

“The bag is an inexpensive option for those who forget to bring their own reusable totes,” Emmer said in a statement. “The bags can hold more groceries than single-use bags, and can be used multiple times and cleaned with disinfectant cloths.”

The DFIC supports the idea for customers to bring their own reusable bags to cut down on plastic waste, Miro Wenger said. But because of the pandemic, she said customers may have to bag their own groceries as some stores may not want employees handling bags that customers bring from home due to virus transmission concerns.

Miro Wenger added that paper or reusable bags will “without question” have a higher cost compared to single-use plastic.

“Whether you go with a reusable plastic bag or you go with a paper bag, there’s no comparison [to the price of single-use plastic bags].”

Giant spokesperson Daniel Wolk told DBT that Giant’s bag expense will increase because paper bags are more costly than plastic bags. But he also highlighted the environmental benefit the ban will have by reducing the use of plastic.

“One of Giant’s four major charitable pillars is to support sustainable practices which help our environment,” Wolk said in a statement. “We are very happy to abide by this new law and support the initiative to use less plastic in our communities to better serve our environment.”

Although Miro Wenger said the environmental benefits of moving away from single-use plastic bags outweigh the costs, doing so during the pandemic could put added strain on businesses and consumers, whether stores swallow the cost themselves or pass it on to customers.

Miro Wenger is also concerned that the void left by single-use plastic bags will be filled by paper bags, which she said have their own environmental drawbacks. 

“We believe wholeheartedly that paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags,” she said. “The whole industry moved away from paper bags years ago because of the overall greenhouse gas costs, deforestation issues, and transportation costs.”

Instead, Miro Wenger would like to see both paper and single-use plastic bags banned, and for businesses and consumers to shift to solely using reusable bags.

The DFIC worked with Delaware State Reps. Mike Smith (R), Gerald Brady (D), and Valerie Longhurst (D) on an unsuccessful paper bag ban bill in 2019. Miro Wenger hopes to work with them again to get it passed in the 2021 legislative session.

Miro Wenger said Delaware also needs to temporarily discontinue at-store recycling programs until 30 days after the end of the pandemic. She said such programs put employees and customers at risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus. 

“We recognize that most folks do the right thing, but some of those bags you were seeing were full of used medical gloves that people were using and then putting into their plastic bags and commingling that into the at-store recycling receptacles,” she said.

Stores that provide single-use plastic bags under the law’s permitted exceptions must have at-store recycling, while stores that eliminate single-use plastic bags will no longer have to participate in at-store recycling effective March 31.

CVS Pharmacy Stores in Delaware will be offering reusable plastic bags and recyclable paper bags to customers at no charge, spokesperson Matt Blanchette said.

RiteAid retail customers can bring their own reusable bags or purchase bags at the store, while RiteAid pharmacies have always used paper bags for prescriptions and will continue doing so, spokesperson Chris Savarese said.

Acme, BJ’s, Costco, Food Lion, Safeway, Target, Walgreens, Walmart and Wawa did not respond to DBT’s request for comment on their plans for the prohibition.

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