John Locke Update / Research Brief

Paper or Plastic? Consumers Should Be Able to Choose

posted on in City & County Government, Energy & Environment, Local Government
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Senate Bill 434 has a pretty inspiring title: “An Act to Amend Certain Environmental and Natural Resources Laws.”  But the significance of the legislation is far greater than the title might suggest.  There are a lot of different bits rolled into this one piece of legislation, but I want to focus on just one, Section 1.1, the repeal of a plastic bag ban.

The original ban was enacted in 2010 and applied only to the barrier islands of Currituck, Dare, and Hyde counties. But it was fairly comprehensive, banning single-use plastic bags from almost all shops.  With a few exceptions for fresh meat and produce, this hits every retailer in the Outer Banks.  No more plastic bags to carry groceries or lunch sandwiches or souvenirs.

Not only that, but the language of the original legislation was pretty paternalistic.  It started out with the assertion that “It is in the best interest of the citizens of this State to gradually reduce the distribution and use of plastic bags.”  I always find it hard to swallow when politicians in Raleigh think they know better than the people they’re supposed to represent what’s “in the best interest of the citizens.”  Are you really sure that increasing costs for every retailer and consumer across the Outer Banks is in the citizens’ best interest?

And it went on to mandate particular signage in all shops.

[county name] County discourages the use of single-use plastic and paper bags to protect our environment from excess litter and greenhouse gases. We would appreciate our customers using reusable bags, but if you are not able to, a 100% recycled paper bag will be furnished for your use.

Oh, the moral superiority here!  And that’s without even getting into the question of whether paper is better than plastic, which is a far more complicated question than it seems on its face.  What’s certainly true is that paper is far more expensive than plastic.  It’s also heavier and bulkier, which matters when you’re running a small shop on the beach or transporting large numbers of bags to get to those shops.

And then there’s the kicker.  In 2011, the year after the ban came into effect, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources produced its Solid Waste Management Annual Report, one bit of which looked at the plastic bag ban’s impact. Its findings were surprising.

The three counties that are covered by the Plastic Bag Management law are Currituck, Dare, and Hyde. Only Dare had Big Sweep data submitted during the years immediately prior to the law and since it became effective.

Dare County 2008 2009 2010 2011
Number of bags recovered 223 3 175 336
Number of volunteers 169 136 172 100
Miles cleaned 41 70 81 25

A correlation between the law and the number of bags collected is not apparent. (emphasis added)

So, all of that, and we’re not even sure it worked.  There are possible reasons for this, among the most probable being that these are areas with very small permanent populations.  Most waste – plastic bags or otherwise – is coming from tourists who may load up the car with groceries before they get to the Outer Banks and leave their plastic bags behind.  Banning the bags from shops on the Outer Banks themselves, therefore, may do little to affect total plastic bag usage.

At any rate, repealing the ban would be a great move by the General Assembly this year.  This should never have been something dictated to coastal counties from Raleigh.  Currituck, Dare, and Hyde Counties know better than the General Assembly what will work for their communities.  I’m glad to see the General Assembly coming to its senses and possibly making this move.

Julie Tisdale is City and County Policy Analyst and Research Manager at the John Locke Foundation. Before coming to the Locke Foundation, she worked at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India, where she wrote about various economic… ...

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