For a long time, I held out for paper, but eventually we all came to accept plastic.
But that ends on the Outer Banks today when a new law prohibiting the use of plastic bags in the largest stores and chain stores becomes effective.
Beginning today, it’s “Paper or reusable cloth bags?” A bill banning the flimsy plastic bags on the barrier islands was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in the spring and signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue in June.
Retailers on the Outer Banks barrier islands larger than 5,000 square feet and stores with five or more outlets in the state are now required to use paper bags with 100 percent recycled content or reusable shopping bags.
Customers who bring their own bags will get a refund, store coupon, store loyalty points or credit equal to the cost of the paper bags.
The bill was put forward and heavily backed by Marc Basnight, a Democrat from Manteo who is President pro tempore of the state Senate.
The legislation popped up on the General Assembly’s schedule suddenly last spring, underwent some revisions, and passed in just a few months’ time.
“According to estimates, retailers provide 10-20 million plastic bags each year in Dare, Currituck, and Hyde counties,” according to a media release from Basnight’s office last spring, “most of which end up in landfills or littering coastal area. Discarded plastic bags contribute to overburdened landfills, threaten wildlife and marine life, degrade the beaches and other natural landscapes of North Carolina's coast, and, in many cases, require consumption of oil and natural gas during the manufacturing process. The Outer Banks, which host millions of visitors each year, are one of the state’s most environmentally-sensitive areas.”
Schorr Johnson, Basnight’s legislative director, said that the senator would have liked to have passed the bill statewide, but politically that was not going to happen – at least this year.
Instead, the legislation applies only to Dare, Hyde, and Currituck counties and then only to the barrier islands in those counties – not to stores on the mainland or even on Roanoke Island.
When Basnight introduced the legislation, I blogged that it was a great idea. I still think it’s a noble idea.
And so do many other folks who are distressed to see the flimsy plastic bags up and down the pristine seashore – hung up in trees and shrubs and grasses on the dunes.
However, some retailers are unhappy with the legislation, especially with the speed in which it was passed and implemented and the singling out of the barrier island businesses.
And they make some fair points.
The recyclable paper bags are more expensive than plastic, take up much more storage space, and many retailers seem clueless as to how to reward customers who bring their own reusable bags.
Some businesses, such as Food Lion, made the switch to 100 percent recyclable bags last month. Others are ready to make the switch today, and some others just haven’t gotten everything together to make the change.
“I’m not going to be ready, but I’m trying,” said Allen Burrus, vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners who owns Burrus Red & White Supermarket in Hatteras village. “I don’t know of anyone on the Outer Banks who will be ready.”
Burrus said the switch to paper, which came in the middle of the busy summer tourist season and an economic downturn, is a “hardship” for the businesses that must comply.
“People would be foolish if they think that we won’t have to pass the cost along to the customers,” he said.
Burrus said the plastic bags he used cost less than a penny each. He thinks he will be able to buy the recyclable paper for about 9 cents per bag. Now he’s investigating wholesalers from which he might get the bags for 5 cents or 7 cents.
“It’s a huge difference,” he said, “I used 150,000 plastic bags a year.”
Angela Conner Tawes said her family business, Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton, made the switch today.
Conner’s paid 4 cents for a custom plastic bag. At first, Tawes said, the business thought that the cost would increase to 10 cents for the recyclable paper bag. Today, she is hopeful that they can buy the paper bag for 5 cents.
She said her issue is that the law is unfair since it applies only the barrier islands.
“Hatteras Island and OBX Beaches are being penalized (unequally) for being on the beach,” she said. “What about the rest of the state? What about the rest of Dare County?”
Tawes also mentioned the fact that smaller stores get a pass on the plastic bag ban.
“Why is a bag from a small store better for the environment than one from a big store?” she asked. “What about fair and equal under the law?”
Tawes also mentioned the increased cost to consumers.
“This doesn’t seem like an issue for consumers,” she said. “Do nothing and no cost increase. Use a reusable bag and get a credit. Great. But basic economics tell you that the cost will be passed to the consumer. In the current economic downturn, no one needs to pay more for basic necessities.”
Businesses are obligated to give a credit, coupon, or refund to customers who bring a reusable bag.
The logistics of that have not been easy to figure out. That credit will be based on the retailer’s best estimate of how many paper bags would have been used for the groceries. A subjective decision for sure.
Tawes says Conner’s will allow a 5-cent deduction for each reusable bag and that will come off the total at the register.
Lee Robinson General Store in Hatteras village is not only ready for the switch to paper today, but owner Belinda Willis said her store made the switch to paper last year.
It has not been a problem, she said. She even recycles boxes that her goods arrive in by packing customers’ groceries in them. The customers do not have to recycle themselves but can return the boxes to the store.
It’s worked out well, she said, and has been “no big deal.”
GeeGee Rosell, owner of Buxton Village Books, which is too small to fall under the plastic ban law, is another store that has used paper only for several years. She thinks more smaller businesses will look to switching to paper to help the environment.
However, it is clear that confusion has been rampant to some degree as retailers tried to figure out if the new law applies to them and how it applied.
In fact, a few businesses I called last week knew little or nothing about the plastic bag ban or even how many square feet the businesses are.
The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association (NCRMA) have been working with their members on compliance.
According to Andy Ellen, general counsel for government relations at the Retail Merchants Association, his group got out the phone book and started calling all business on the Outer Banks – member or not -- to help them comply.
Ellen said his group lobbied hard against the law – as did the petrochemical industry, which makes the plastic bags. Beth Braswell, legislative counsel for Marc Basnight, said even the paper bag industry, which sees the switch to paper as only the first step to a switch to all reusable bags, was opposed.
Neither the NCRMA nor the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce has any idea how many businesses fall under the new law or who they are.
“I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had from retailers who needed help,” Ellen said.
The association has published a primer on how to comply with the plastic bag ban with good questions and answers and an example of a sign that must be displayed in businesses that must conform to the law.
Among the issues that the group has had to help out businesses with is exactly where they can purchase the number of recyclable paper bags they will need. Some retailers have had trouble finding enough paper bags, especially the large chain stores such as Food Lion and Wal-Mart.
John Bone, executive director of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, said the organization has done all it can to provide information to its members. However, he said, it’s been tough.
“It happened so quickly at a time of year when most of us were focused on our businesses,” he said.
The North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources (DEHNR) will enforce the law and impose fines of as much as $100 for a first violation, $200 for a second violation, and $500 for additional violations.
However, Johnson of Basnight’s office said he did not think “the plastic bag police” would be out in force today.
Most large “chain” stores, such as Food Lion or Wal-Mart, have their plans in place and are ready, he said.
“DEHNR will likely recognize that it will take some time for smaller businesses to adjust,” he said.
“DEHNR will at least initially enforce based on complaints,” said Braswell, Basnight’s legislative counsel.
As for whether or not it is fair to single out the barrier islands, Braswell said, “Sen. Basnight wanted to do this. The legislature had to have a legal justification.”
That legal basis, she said, is spelled out in the law. It boils down to this:
• Plastic bags are detrimental to the environment.
• It is in the best interest of the state to reduce the use of plastic bags
• Environmental degradation is especially burdensome in counties with barrier islands where soundside and ocean pollution are more significant, where removing refuse from such isolated places is more difficult and expensive, where such refuse deters tourism, and where the presence of a National Wildlife Refuge or National Seashore shows that the federal government places special value on protecting the natural environment in that vicinity.
• The barrier islands are most relevant in that they are where sea turtles come to nest and plastic bag debris can be harmful to turtles and other marine life.
• Inhabited barrier islands are visited by a high volume of tourists and, therefore, experience a high consumption of bags relative to their permanent population due to large numbers of purchases from restaurants, groceries, beach shops, and other retailers by the itinerant tourist population.
The bill, Braswell said, protects “the most vulnerable real estate in North Carolina.”
Most business people on Hatteras and Ocracoke understand the importance of protecting the pristine environment on the national seashore.
However, they still don’t like being singled out, don’t like that it will cost them more, and don’t like the fact that it was done so quickly in the summer season.
Angela Tawes of Conner’s Supermarket, which has been selling really nice reusable bags for 99 cents for some time now, summed it up this way, “We are not anti-environment, but this legislation lacks forethought and insight into actual implementation.”
And to make matters worse today for retailers, a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax went into effect.
The sales tax in Dare County is now 7.5 cents.