In 2010, N.C. lawmakers led the nation in the fight against plastic bag litter by banning these bags along the Outer Banks. The bill confirmed the General Assembly’s commitment to protecting barrier island ecosystems and preserving the coastal beauty that draws millions of visitors each year. Since then, nine states have enacted laws related to plastic bag pollution, and bills are in development around the country.
Now, Reps. Beverly Boswell, John Bell and John Bradford and Sens. Andrew Brock, Norman Sanderson, Bill Cook, and Andy Wells would move backwards with H.B. 271 and S. 434, which would repeal the bag ban. Their proposal relies on voluntary recycling programs to reduce plastic bag pollution. But many coastal businesses support the bag ban, as they directly benefit from measures that reduce coastal debris and promote tourism.
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Of the 55 million N.C. visitors in 2016, 16 percent visited the state’s beaches. 2016 tourists spent over $1 billion in Dare County alone. Along with enjoyment of pristine beaches, wildlife viewing opportunities draw tourists to the coast. Plastic bag pollution in the Outer Banks region harms marine life and deters tourism. No evidence shows that plastic bag bans have hurt tourism.
Plastic bag bans are the simplest way of reducing plastic pollution into the ocean. A 2014 survey showed a reduction in plastic bags found on Outer Banks beaches during regular volunteer clean-ups. Los Angeles County’s bag ban resulted in a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag use during the first year alone. In Washington, D.C., a plastic bag fee reduced bag use by 60 percent, and reduced bag pollution in the Potomac River by 72 percent in the first four years.
HB 271 and S. 434 cite no evidence that voluntary plastic bag recycling programs would be a comparable replacement. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite. Plastic bag recycling is costly: a ton of plastic bags costs $4,000 to recycle, but can be sold for only $32 – a loss of $3,968 per ton. Plastic bag recycling is also difficult: bags cannot be collected with other recyclables because thin film plastics clog sorting machines. These factors discourage recycling, and many recyclers no longer accept plastic bags.
The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce recognizes the damage that repealing the bag ban would do. A letter on its website states “our retailers, large and small, have indicated that they do not want to see this ban repealed.” Communities along the Outer Banks have passed resolutions opposing the repeal. Kill Devil Hills’ resolution reaffirms that banning bags “has improved the visual aesthetics in Kill Devil Hills and other areas along the Outer Banks.”
This attitude prevails among businesses as well. In 2011, a survey of 100 Outer Banks merchants revealed a positive response to the bag ban. A number of boutiques, surf shops, independent grocers, and variety stores have spoken up and do not want to be associated with the repeal. Litter is bad for business.
At a time when many states are enacting plastic bag bans of their own to stem the flood of pollution into rivers and coastal ecosystems, North Carolina should reclaim its leadership and keep the bag ban in place.
Longest is a Duke law professor and Scenic America board member. Sechley is a policy fellow at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.