By JOY CRIST
On March 7, Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Dare) introduced a two-page bill in the NC House of Representatives that would repeal the ban on plastic bags in certain coastal areas, including Hatteras Island.
Citing that “this prohibition impacts North Carolina businesses large and small… and hinders their ability to create jobs,” the bill would bring plastic bags back to the grocery stores, and would essentially replace the ban with a “voluntary educational program informing citizens of the availability of recycling sites throughout the entire State.”
The original ban, which was the initiative of then Senate leader Marc Basnight of Dare County, was passed in 2009, and was truly one of the first of its kind. Since it went into effect, more than 125 areas across the country have generated similar bans on plastic bags.
The nuts and bolts of the original ban from 2009 is simple enough. Retail stores in Ocracoke, Hatteras, and the coastal Outer Banks are required to use recyclable brown paper bags instead of the traditional plastic bags, and customers who bring their own reusable bags to the store are eligible for a 5 cent credit per bag.
When the ban originated, it was promoted as a way to keep the beaches and waterways cleaner, and it did receive some initial blowback from customers. After all, it used to be that after a grocery store trip, you could pile bags onto your arms like a star weightlifter, and make just one trip up several flights of stairs to unload the groceries. (My personal record was in the 10-bag-per-trip, or 5-bags-per-arm range.) But now, you had to balance these big bulky paper bags with slim handles that seemingly couldn’t handle the weight of anything heavier than a loaf of bread.
It was annoying at first for many of us, to be sure. But then we all got used to it, and most of us forgot that we lived in an area where plastic bags are not available, (unless we went on an out-of-town shopping trip.)
And while the plastic ban has likely slipped from our memories in recent years, this isn’t the first time a repeal to the plastic bag ban has been on the table.
In 2011, a nearly identical bill was introduced in the state legislation that would have effectively lifted the ban. But the proposed law didn’t move forward, and it eventually disappeared.
It’s pretty evident that this new bill has some steam, with several big names - including House Majority Leader John Bell, IV (R-Craven) and House Deputy Majority Whip John Bradford, III (R-Mecklenburg) – signing on to the bill as primary sponsors. (Additional sponsors for the bill include Representatives Brisson, Clampitt, Ford, Hurley, McElraft, Pittman, Saine, Speciale, and Warren.) If passed, the bill will go into effect on July 1st.
Since the bill was introduced just a few days ago, the current ban has been plucked out of our forgotten memories and has launched back into conversation.
And regardless of what side of the issue a resident or visitor lands, there are several common talking points when it comes to the problems with what’s in place, and what’s potentially to come.
Issues with the Current Ban
For many retailers, the main points of contention on the current ban is the cost, and the overall fairness.
Certainly, the cost of producing paper bags versus plastic bags in one specific corner of North Carolina won’t put the big chains out of business – especially for companies that have dozens if not hundreds of stores across the southeast. It’s almost laughable to think that providing paper bags instead of plastic bags would cause Food Lion to shutter its doors forever, or would even cause the store to be unable to hire the seasonal help it needs to deal with the summer swell of visitors. Especially considering that the ban has now been in place for roughly eight years.
But it can be cost prohibitive for the “little guys” who are the preferred alternatives for many locals and visitors alike who support small businesses – especially businesses that have been on the island for generations.
“It’s hard, because for us, we have customers who feel passionately on both sides of the situation,” says Angela Conner Tawes, manager at Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton. “The bill is well intentioned, but it’s cost prohibitive. It costs 1.9 cents for a plastic bag, and 10.9 cents for a paper bag, and that is in addition to the 5 cent discount per bag, if they bring their own bag.”
Another issue for smaller stores is the loss of valuable storage space – which is especially crucial in isolated areas like Hatteras Island that aren’t on a main trucking or shipping route.
“Space is an issue for us,” says Tawes. “A pallet of paper bags takes up six times the amount of space as the same amount of plastic bags – space that we can’t use for merchandise because we need to have these bags in place.”
But for Tawes and many other retailers, one of the largest problems of the current ban is fairness.
Only certain sections of Dare County are subjected to the ban – Roanoke Island isn’t included – and there’s a lot of perceived gray area on which businesses are included and which aren’t, as well as what happens if a business doesn’t comply.
“We’d like to see basic fairness,” says Tawes. “If it doesn’t apply to the entire county, then it shouldn’t apply to us. There’s also no enforcement, so people who are doing the right thing and who are following the law are bearing the financial burden of it.”
“Whatever side you fall on, [the ban] should apply to everybody or nobody - that would be my basic critique of the entire ban. It’s frustrating that it’s not the same for all of us.”
Issues with the Proposed Bill
It’s still debated whether paper bags or plastic bags are worse, overall, for the environment. (Google “paper vs. plastic” and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)
But ban supporters have pointed to the fact that a plastic bag’s harm to local marine life is irrefutable- and on Hatteras Island, we have marine life in abundance.
William Thompson is the Lead Biological Science Technician for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and he has been patrolling the beaches for seven years.
“Plastic is something we see a lot of in what we do on the beach. We see it on the oceanside, soundside, and we see it in between,” he says. “Wherever we get a lot of pedestrian access, we see plastic, and it could be plastic in general, or it could be plastic bags.”
He notes that right now, the plastic bags that wind up on the beach are from visitors bringing them in from other areas of the state or country, or from other coastal areas in general.
“Often times, if you’re seeing them in the ocean, they are bags that for whatever reason were in the ocean and are washing ashore,” he says. “It’s hard to determine where these plastic bags are coming from – could be from people that live in areas that don’t have a plastic ban in place. But you probably see less [plastic bags] here than you would see somewhere else where there isn’t a ban.”
And while there are several inherent problems with these thin polyethylene plastic bags – (they’re hard to recycle because they don’t melt easily, they can last millions of years, and those handles are strong enough to tangle around the necks of birds and beach critters) – one of the biggest problems boils down to a single and specific characteristic.
Plastic bags look a lot like food.
“Plastic bags in general can affect a lot of things. But as for adversely affecting wildlife close to home, the [main problem] would be sea turtles,” says Thompson. “With the way plastic is, it’s pliable and it moves. When it’s in the water, it can look like prey items that a sea creature would eat naturally.”
“A plastic bag most resembles a jellyfish, and many species eat jellyfish,” he adds. “When plastic bags are introduced, there is more of a threat that sea turtles will see that plastic and ingest it.”
The internet is packed with videos of plastic bags floating in water – and even Thompson says that sometimes he’ll watch one and will struggle to tell if it’s plastic, or an actual jellyfish.
And our visiting sea turtles have been fooled too.
Thompson says that in the seven years that he has worked on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, at least one dead sea turtle found on the seashore has had plastic in its GI tract. “Another huge component [affected by plastic bags] is marine mammals. Marine mammals eat jellyfish, and we often find plastic in the GI track in marine mammals as well,” he says.
It’s a far more common problem than you’d think.
The Sea Turtle Conservatory reports that an estimated 100+ million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris, and a recent study that was covered by the Washington Post reported that half of the sea turtles on the planet have ingested some form of plastic.
"Turtles can be killed directly by ingesting plastics, through blockage of the intestines or through piercing of the intestinal wall," the lead researcher, Qamar Schuyler, told the Post. In addition, sea turtles can also die because of the toxic chemicals that were used in the production of the plastic, or which were absorbed while the plastic was floating in the ocean.
"More plastic bags will simply be out there – ones that visitors are bringing in with them, and ones that will be available here," said Thompson.
Essentially, if you have more plastic available, you’re going to have more plastic bags on the beach.
Boswell was not able to be reached for comment for this story, but her inbox and phone lines have been flooded with calls since news of the bill broke.
Here’s her contact information in case you want to join the conversation:
In addition, you can track the movements of the bill – and read the bill for yourself – here: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/BillLookUp/BillLookUp.pl?Session=2017&BillID=H271
It’s a little early in the process to decipher the ultimate fate of this bill that was brought to the surface from the newly elected Boswell. But it seems to have more support from state legislators than its 2011 predecessor, and it is already garnering a lot of attention from businesses, environmental groups, and anyone who has a stake in Hatteras Island.
One thing is for certain at this point. The bill is certainly sparking a lot of heated conversation for everyone on Hatteras Island.