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Legislature OKs bill closing plastic bag ban loophole

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DOVER – The Delaware General Assembly approved a bill late in the 2021 session to close loopholes in the single-use plastic bag ban that went into effect this year.

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

A 2019 law, that went into effect Jan. 1, prohibited large stores and chain retailers from providing “any single-use plastic carryout bag” to consumers at the point of sale.

Rather than offer reusable fabric bags or paper, however, many stores in the First State took advantage of an exemption in the 2019 bill that allowed for thicker plastic bags, reasoning that those plastic bags would be reusable, rather than single use. The reality after their use began, however, was that most consumers weren’t reusing the thicker bags as recommended.

House Bill 212 closes the loophole by specifying that “reusable bags” are those that are made of durable fabric and have stitched handles. The law was also expanded to cover all non-restaurant retail establishments, regardless of size. Both provisions would go into effect on July 1, 2022, if signed by Gov. John Carney.

“Choosing to move away from single-use plastics means choosing the long-term health of Delaware families over mere convenience,” said Sen. Kyle Evans Gay (D-Talleyville), Senate prime sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “We’ve all grown used to having these single-use bags around, but the truth is that they are piling up in landfills, clogging recycling machinery, polluting our environment, and even entering our food and water supply as microplastics. We can stop all of that by making the switch to reusables, an opportunity that I see as a moral obligation to future generations.”

Supporters of the bill emphasize that plastic carryout bags are recycled at alarmingly low rates – less than 10% – leaving more than 3.5 million tons of plastic bags to be discarded nationally each year. According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Delawareans were using about 434 plastic bags per person, per year before the initial ban went into effect Jan. 1, greatly contributing to the 2,400 tons of plastic winding up in landfills annually. 

Julie Miro Wegner, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council, (DFIC), a trade association for grocery stores, told Delaware Business Times that her organization supports the move away from plastic bags but noted that paper bags, a likely substitute for plastic, should likewise be banned.

“We don’t believe that this actually is a good step forward for retailers or for the environment, because we do believe that paper is worse than plastic,” Miro Wegner said, referring to studies that energy consumption in production of paper bags and lack of consumer reuse of them contribute negatively to the environment.

She added that overly large size restrictions for remaining allowable plastic bags were costly and environmentally detrimental, and that continued required participation by grocery stores in plastic bag recycling programs would be unnecessary. Miro Wegner criticized the approved amendment bill, noting that lawmakers had yet to see any hard data on the initial plastic bag ban’s effectiveness less than seven months into the program.

The DFIC intends to lobby for corrective measures next year ahead of the July 1, 2022, start date if the law is enacted, she added.

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