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Ban on plastic bags is effective today – get your reusable cloth bags ready

Tuesday 01 September 2009 at 2:22 pm. Several decades ago when plastic bags for groceries and other purchases started gaining popularity, store clerks would ask, “Paper or plastic?”

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.

nine comments

Mary Bisantz

I thought the sales tax was now 7.75%, not 7.5%.
As for the new bag law, I am all for it. Our store (Home Port Gallery & Gifts) is exempt, but we strongly support this law, and would like to see it be enacted statewide. Maybe if we all demonstrate that it can be done without a great deal of difficulty, it will give the legislature the impetus it needs to enact it statewide. After all, our beautiful mountain region deserves the same environmental protection as our coastline. We have a responsibility, I believe, to educate the consumer on the harm that plastic bags do. We have been using the reusable cloth bags all summer, and our customers have really appreciated receiving them. Yes, reusable cloth bags and recycled paper bags cost us more, but if we economize in other ways, (I admit I am still working on this!) it should be almost cost neutral. For instance, maybe if several shops worked together on a specific Outer Banks design, and all ordered together, we could purchase enough quantities of reusable cloth bags and recycled paper bags to reduce the hardship and make it economically feasible for smaller stores to comply with the law.

Mary Bisantz (Email ) - 01-09-’09 20:19
chuck allison

this is a case of ‘it’s the right thing to do , lets just do it!” all over the country people are talking about getting rid of plastic—-the outer banks is out there on the leading edge, and this is a good thing—-for those not ready for the change over—shame! you knew it was coming, why didn’t you get ready? now if we can just cut down on the china imports and buy american

chuck allison (Email ) - 01-09-’09 20:27
Bertie Dixon III, III

I am not a tree hugger or a member of PETA or organizations as such, but I
hate to see plastic bags hung up in bushes along the side of the road knowing they
will be there until the last breath leaves my body. I have bought eight cloth type bags
(I grocery shop a lot at once) from Walmart and Sams at half the price down here and I find I can easily carry three times more in these than plastic . Less trips to the house and nothing to discard. The only thing I will miss is, Conners bags were the largest and heaviest to be used
in your kitchen garbage can as a excellent holder for wastes. Of course, the chemical companies, businesses etc. outside outerbanks will be
effected eventually and will raise Cain, but sometimes the good outweighs the means.

Bert III Frisco

Bertie Dixon III, III (Email ) - 01-09-’09 21:50
ellen jahns

i think this is a good move towards preservation on the island. Why doesn’t someone down there have the new recycled bags made up with the hatteras island lighthouse logo and some great catchy phrase like keep the island clean, reuse these bags. i am sure tourists ( like me) would buy them., i use those type of bags here in Richmond. I know the food lions around me sell those kinds of bags. But in order for it to ‘sweep’ the island there should be a generic ‘outer banks’ collector’s bags if you will. Around here they sell for about 1 to 2 dollars.

i hate seeing those demn plastic bags in the surf. going out for the sunrise walk to see what has washed up from the previous night has truly turned into picking up thse bags. used to bring a bucket for shells, now i bring a bag to pick up the nasty plastic ones. i don’t mind doing it, for the better i say.

ellen jahns (Email ) - 02-09-’09 05:10

We travel to the OBX every year for our much needed vacation. I hate to see plastic bags along the roadside and laying on the beach. I am addicted to the recyclable cloth bags and have been using them for over a year. I use them for a lot more things than just carrying groceries. I don’t mind spending an extra dollar for them and I’m always on the look out for different colors, logos and designs. I would certainly buy several with OBX logos just for souvenirs. Maybe the retailers can offer a free bag with a minimum purchase amount.

TerriJ - 02-09-’09 11:01
Kurt E. Maschmeier

Right on! The whole world should ban plastic bags! The outer banks is such a beautiful place, especially Hatteras Island and with this ban it’s going to be nice not seeing any stray plastic bags floating around or on the beaches. Another key point is that plastic bags are made from an oil base and we all know how the oil companies are greedy and how some, not all, don’t care about the enviroment or the effects that oil has on the planet. This is another great step in improving the way we live as humans and how we are becoming aware that changes need to be made to secure our future and our planet. I am a tree huggn hippy, PETA member and activist for the well being of our planet, but I’m also an avid surf fisherman, catch and release of course and I definetly support the preserve beach access movement. I own a Jeep wrangler 4×4 and I too like to have access to the beaches and my favorite fishing spots while vacationing on Hatteras Island. I hope to see my hometown ban plastic bags, but for now I’ll just keep using the “enviroment friendly bags”. In this past year recycling has really taken off in the outer banks and it’s a great thing. Peace & respect.

Kurt E. Maschmeier (Email ) - 03-09-’09 09:26
Irene Nolan

I stand corrected. Mary Bizantz id correct. Dare County sales tax is 7.75 percent.


Irene Nolan (Email ) - 03-09-’09 15:39
Rob Alderman

I think Angela and Allen have pointed out the cons of this and the unfairness of the law. If Allen went from a $1500 annual cost for bags to a rough $7500 for bags, then the consumer will eat that cost, not Allen.

As a business owner I use the plastic bags in my store, however I have not bought one of them. My friends and family saves their plastic bags and brings them to me, where I reuse them in my business, as to get the most out of them. I got one of those nice recycled bags the other day, when shopping with my wife—It tore in half going up the stairs and dumped our groceries down the stairs. There was less then 5lbs in that bag…thanx

Is it the right thing to do..yes. But, I’ve grown wary of having the right thing shoved on me. A person use to be able to solicit certain bizs based on their pratices and wether or not they agreed with them. Now the biz owner is just being told “ this is the right thing and you will do it”. Sorry business owner, but you can no longer smoke inside..Screw you—Come give me some TARP money and then you can tell me whatever you want..

Get your ticket book ready people..cause you’ll probably be able to find me late night working on a kayak or working on a video smoking a cig in my business..Stroke away- I’ll be paying the ticket in rolled pennies.

If someone reading my comments decides he or she will not solicit my biz, because they disagree with me or my pratices, then I’ll loose no sleep over it..

I just wish I was able to make my own decisions..it must be nice.

Rob Alderman - 04-09-’09 06:45
<span class='registered'>Denny in Dayton</span>

Personally I think this law is really almost childishly silly. Very knee jerk. Just part of the "we have to do something" crowd. No you have to do something "EFFECTIVE". My wife and I do like the reusable bags from Connor’s and aren’t particularly fond of the plastic (nothing worse than a bottle of wine plunging through the bag), but do we really need this heavy handed and selective a law?

The real cause of the trash spread around is the trash trucks. Anyone who has driven behind one of the trucks between the villages has seen the steady stream of litter (paper and plastic) flying out. Wouldn’t this be a good first start? And it could be done by enforcing EXISTING laws! (but Marc Basnights job is to pass new laws).

There seems to just be some kind of "anti plastic" movement and this is part of it. Has everyone forgotten George Carlins "The Planet is Fine"? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eScDfYzME.. Or have you never seen it? He hits the whole environmental movement right on the head.

The whole notion that by sparing a few plastic bags we are going to "save the planet" or even save land fill space is really nuts. According to studies those bags decompose in 10-20 years. It’s not the bags…It’s the "stuff" you put in them silly. According to Penn State University: Paper-2-4 Weeks; Leaves-1-3 Months; Orange Peel- 6 Months; Milk Carton- 5 years; Plastic Bag- 10-20 Years; Plastic Container- 50-80 Years; Aluminum Can- 80 Years; Tin Can- 100 Years; Plastic Soda Bottle- 450 Years; Glass Bottle-500 Years; Styrofoam-Never. But thank God you didn’t put all that in a plastic bag! Should we outlaw all that other stuff too?

So much of this green movement is about "what’s in my backyard". We think we will really be green if we make compact fluorescent bulbs mandatory, what about all the Chinese Workers getting mercury poisoning and the environmental damage done there? Of course not, we don’t think this stuff through.

The really dumb part of this legislation is the whole dictate of "credits rewards or bonuses". If you want to outlaw the plastic bag then just do it, plain and simple and ALL businesses. Then let them figure out if they want to simply adjust prices or have other programs. Who wants to have all this transacting at the check out? "Hey I picked up a bag of chips in aisle 3 someone dropped, how much credit do I get?" Check out could become like dealing with a middle eastern horse trader.

So what happens when people visiting are simply further encouraged to buy their "stuff" off island on their way there? Make plastic bag possession illegal? I’ll bet the difference in plastic bag litter will be negligible, but he economic impact will be much stronger on those businesses forced to bear the brunt of this law. There will still be plenty of plastic bags, most of them purchased off island. Back to item one, deal with the trash hauler first.

Denny in Dayton (Email ) - 04-09-’09 09:34

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