Norwich Considers Ban On ALL Carryout Plastic Bags From Retailers

Paper bags to cost 10 cents

The Town of Norwich will be the first Vermont municipality to ban ALL carryout plastic bags from retail establishments, if the proposed ordinance is adopted, as is expected on Wednesday. The ordinance is not in the Selectboard packet, which I find problematic, but an earlier version, before amendments, is located in the Selectboard packet for February 27, under correspondence. 

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Only Brattleboro and Wilmington have enacted local legislation in Vermont, says Bag The Ban website.  Those towns banned single-use plastic bags. The  Norwich ban goes significantly further.  

Under the Brattleboro ordinance, only plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick are banned.  A heavy duty trash bag is 2.0 to 3.0 mils thick and a resealable baggie is 1.5 to 2.0 mils, according to the Gauge Thickness Conversion Chart published by U.S. Packaging & Wrapping LLC. 

Other than those single-use plastic bags, the Brattleboro ordinance allows retailers to use any reusable or compostable plastic bags and any type of paper bag.  In Norwich, a retailer may only use paper bags at the checkout and it must charge "no less than" 10 cents for each paper bag. The store keeps the cash. 
Consumers may also bring their their own bags. The concept underlying the 10 cent charge is to induce consumers  to bring their own reusable bags.

The fifth grade class at Marion Cross School are the moving force behind the effort to have the Selectboard enact the ordinance. See Marion Cross School 5th graders - Make their case to the Selectboard!. The students urged adoption of a ban on all plastic bags, saying in the report to Selectboard: 

We think it's a mistake to get mired in a debate over the term "single- use" and therefore recommend that it be avoided. And because our goal is to encourage the use of sturdy shopping bags made from eco-friendly, natural materials designed for long term use, we don't favor making exemptions for plastic bags of a certain thickness that have handles and meet a specified standard for reuse.

The fifth graders apparently polled all Norwich retailers about the plastic bag ban and all are on board. It is not clear whether retailers were asked about charging for paper bags.
Based on this backing of retailers, the Selectboard  amended the Norwich ordinance on February 27 to eliminate the "hardship" deferment contained in the Brattleboro ordinance. New businesses take note.

Banning plastic bags may be a popular sentiment. However, I stumbled upon government studies from the UK, Canada, and Denmark that raise concerns about the environmental impact of reusable tote bags.** This seems largely underreported by the media and environmental groups. Cotton tote bags, for example, have  "the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute," according to a story in the Atlantic.  See the end note below. 

Indeed, one environmental activist, Jennie Romer, thinks fees are better than bans. As reported in the May 2, 2016 issue of the New Yorker

The fee is preferable, in her experience, because it makes shoppers think about whether they really need the bag, and allows them to buy it if they do (say, for cleaning up after their pets). Fees are also easier to defend against legal challenges. Bans, on the other hand, tend to get more support, she said, because voters seem to enjoy banning things.

Bans, partial bans, fees, taxes -- pick your poison. 

Once the Selectboard approves the ordinance, residents may seek a town-wide vote on the question, by filing a petition signed by not less than five per cent of voters  and presented within 44 days following the date of adoption. 24 V.S.A. § 1973. 
**  Reusable bags also have an adverse environmental impact when the entire life cycle of the product is considered.  According to a September 2016 article by Noah Dillon in the Atlantic, Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment?

But canvas bags might actually be worse for the environment than the plastic ones they are meant to replace. In 2008, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study of resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas, and recycled-polypropylene tote bags. Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks. Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute. 
A 2018 study by the  Danish Environmental Protection Agency makes similar conclusions in Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bag. It concluded that an organic cotton tote bag would need to be reused 149 times to provide the same environmental performance of the average LDPE carrier bag reused but once. See chart below.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency / LCA of grocery carrier bags at page 17.

Even so, news reports say the Danish government may seek approval from Parliament to ban single-use plastic bags and require payments for thicker plastic bags .  

See also this November 2018 video from KING 5 News (NBC Seattle) with Environmental Reporter Alison Morrow. 

POSTED: 03.09.2019
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