Bill would ban single-use plastic bags in Delaware

Gov. John Carney is joined by students of North Star Elementary School (Hockessin) to announce the Earth Day proclamation at the Smyrna Rest Area. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

SMYRNA — Legislation introduced Thursday would ban single-use plastic bags like those commonly offered at many stores, from supermarkets to gas stations.

House Bill 130 would restrict establishments from giving customers bags that are “made from non-compostable plastic and not specifically designed and manufactured to be reusable.” The measure would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and would still allow businesses to provide paper, fabric or reusable plastic bags.

The proposal would apply only to stores with at least 7,000 square feet of retail sales space or chains that have three or more locations in the state with each one comprising 3,000 square feet. Restaurants would be excluded.

The bill has a few exceptions allowing plastic bags to be provided in certain circumstances, including when they are used for wrapping damp items like frozen foods, containing chemicals or holding live animals sold in pet stores.

Supporters announced the measure at a news conference at the Smyrna Rest Area that featured environmental advocates young and old, DART’s first all-electric bus and even an attendee wearing dozens, if not hundreds, of plastic bags.

DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin, left, and Rep. Gerald L. Brady, D-Wilmington, join Odyssey Charter School student advocates for “Plastic Free Delaware.” A proposed bill would eliminate most plastic bags from Delaware businesses. (Special to the Delaware State News / Ariane Mueller)

“Importantly for me, it’s not just the negative effects of plastic in our environment but really the blight it imposes on our beautiful state,” said Gov. John Carney, noting the event took place four days before Earth Day.

“I am so upset with the litter that I see from one end of Delaware to the other. Part of it is just an ethic. Somehow we’ve lost the ethic that it’s unacceptable to roll down your window when you come up to a stop sign or when you’re coming up to a ramp to a highway and just throw your fast food containers out the window.”

California was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags, approving legislation in 2014, although the measure did not go into effect for several years. The state also requires stores to charge customers at least 10 cents for each paper or reusable plastic bag.

Hawaii has a de facto ban on plastic bags, and New York recently approved a prohibition that takes effect in March. Numerous cities, such as Washington, Chicago and Boston, have restrictions on bags.

Gov. John Carney, left, and Jennifer Cohan (Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary), right, pose with students of the North Star Elementary School (Hockessin) in front of the first electric Delaware Transit Corporation (DART) bus. (Special to the Delaware State News / Ariane Mueller)

Some Delaware lawmakers attempted to curb the use of plastic bags in 2015 and 2016 with a bill that would have placed a 5-cent fee on them. The proposal, designed to encourage customers to be more environmentally friendly by hitting them where it hurts — their wallets — never received a floor vote.

While this legislation has support from the governor and environmental advocates, it should face at least some pushback from businesses.

Julie Miro Wenger, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council, noted some studies have indicated paper bags are no more environmentally friendly than plastic ones.

“Our position would be that we are opposed to a bill that would only ban plastic bags,” she said.

“We think that if you’re going to do a ban, you have to do a ban on both paper and plastic, because pushing consumers to use paper bags is pretty recognized as being worse for the environment. It takes a whole lot more resources for a paper bag than a plastic bag” to be produced.

The Food Industry Council, which represents food retailers, wholesalers and suppliers, helped push for a law barring local governments from banning plastic bags or creating a fee for them. That provision was included in a 2009 bill establishing the state’s recycling program, which mandates large businesses allow customers to return plastic bags that will then be recycled.

Although cheap and convenient, plastic carryout bags can be harmful to the Earth, according to experts.

“This cannot be an afterthought anymore,” said Rep. Gerald Brady, a Wilmington Democrat who is the main sponsor of House Bill 130. “In my opinion, we cannot ignore the facts any longer. Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year, but it takes more than 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Five hundred years. Our reliance on plastic bags is killing the environment.”

Not only do bags decompose slowly, many animals, especially water-dwelling ones, often choke on or become trapped in them.

According to the bill, more than 90 percent of plastic bags are not recycled or reused, meaning upwards of 3.5 million tons of such items end up in the trash every year.

“An average American family goes through six plastic bags a week, which with over 300 million people, equates to 1.8 billion bags that are used and discarded on a weekly basis,” Delaware Nature Society Director of Advocacy Brenna Goggin said in a statement. “Banning single-use plastic bags will promote the use of more environmentally sound alternatives and provide an avenue for everyone to make Earth Day every day.”

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