Plastic is not fantastic: Durham considers 10-cent fee on single-use bags

By: - August 12, 2019 12:00 pm
Photo by Lisa Sorg

They clutter the gutters and girdle the turtles. They snag in the trees and float in the seas. 

Plastic bags are strangling the planet.

To reduce the amount of plastic waste in Durham, the city-county Environmental Affairs Board last week unanimously endorsed a proposed draft ordinance that would assess a 10-cent fee on most single-use plastic and paper bags at many food and retail outlets. 

“We need to reduce waste and prevent trash in the first place,” Crystal Dreisbach, executive director of Don’t Waste Durham, told the EAB. “We need a systemic change by business, industry and government, and to provide solutions for consumers.”

Although the EAB has only an advisory role, its support of the proposal is key for advocates to petition Durham City Council and Durham County Commissioners. 

Don’t Waste Durham and the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic are leading the project.

Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags each year, but only one percent are properly recycled. In addition to the fossil fuels required to produce and transport the bags — they’re made from petroleum — most wind up in landfills, storm drains, trees and even oceans, where they harm aquatic life. The bags disintegrate into micro-plastics, which when eaten by turtles, fish, whales and dolphins, can kill them.

“It also represents an equity issue,” Dreisbach said. Durham’s trash does not stay in Durham. Instead, it is trucked 96 miles away to the Sampson County landfill, near Roseboro. According to the NC Department of Environmental Quality Community Mapping System, 45 percent of people living in census tracts nearest the landfill belong to communities of color. About a quarter of households live below the federal poverty threshold.

The draft ordinance would impose the fee on the bags and containers at the point-of-purchase, such as a groceries, restaurants, clothing stores, and delivery services, such as Instacart. Customers could avoid the fee by bringing their own bags. Stores could also sell reusable bags or give them away.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year. Only 1 percent of them are properly recycled.

The ordinance would contain several exemptions (scroll to the end of the story to read the ordinance). People using SNAP and WIC benefits would not be assessed the fee. Pharmacies, hospitals and food banks would also be exempt. Bags used within groceries, such as those for vegetables, fruit and bulk items, would not be subject to the fee.

Under one proposal, businesses could keep proceeds from the fees. Alternately, the money could be apportioned among businesses and local governments for education, marketing and training on waste reduction programs.

It is uncertain how Durham’s ordinance would be enforced. The draft document assigns that task to the city’s solid waste management department. Wayne Fenton, Durham’s assistant solid waste director, said there is only one person within the department assigned to code enforcement. “We would need some extra staff,” Fenton said, to enforce the ordinance.

Nor is there a county-level counterpart for solid waste enforcement.

Fenton, though, acknowledged that plastic bags have become “very problematic” in recycling facilities. Instead of recycling the bags at designated places (Food Lion and Target both have bag drop-offs) residents are improperly including the bags in their curbside recycling bins. 

At the recycling facilities the bags become entangled in the conveyor belts. “We have to shut down the entire line until someone can remove the bag,” Fenton said.

Interns with the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic sent surveys to 218 Durham businesses. Of the 38 that responded, 24 strongly or somewhat supported a bag fee; 23 were in favor of a Styrofoam container fee.

Seven businesses said they were neutral. Another seven — five restaurants and two retail outlets — said they somewhat or strongly opposed the fee.

“The primary concern is affordability,” Alisha Zhao, a law and policy clinic student, said. Paper bags cost four times more than plastic; 1,000 bags are just a penny apiece.

Don’t Waste Durham is trying to start a grant-funded program to supply free reusable bags to businesses. “We have to make sure we have an affordable alternative,” Dreisbach said.

State law allows cities to impose fees as part of waste management programs with “reduction as a goal,” said Michelle Nowlin, clinical law professor at the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. 

The Solid Waste Management Act is a rare example in North Carolina in that it allows city ordinances governing waste to be stricter or more extensive than state law. (However, cities can’t levy additional taxes without legislative approval.)

“Nothing in law is failproof,” Nowlin cautioned. “It doesn’t deter the General Assembly from withdrawing the cities’ authority or someone challenging it.”

Nationwide in 2019, states have introduced at least 95 bills related to plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of these bills would ban or place a fee on plastic bags. Others would improve bag recycling programs. And still others would prohibit local governments from enacting bag-related ordinances without legislative approval.

Several states, especially those with coastlines like California, New York, and Hawaii, have banned single-use plastic bags. The North Carolina legislature passed a law during the 2009-10 session banning single-use plastic bags in six counties along the Outer Banks. Although the ban was popular in that region, the powerful NC Retail Merchants Association opposed it. The legislature repealed the ban in 2017.

Other cities have also set fees; some have assigned enforcement to the city manager’s office.

Boulder, Colorado, also charges 10 cents per plastic or paper bag; four cents stays with the business and six goes back to the city. Businesses remit the bag fees quarterly. Portland, and South Portland, Maine, charge five cents per bag, as does Washington, DC.

The Town of Boone has long discussed imposing a fee or a ban. Former Town Councilman Quint David, who also serves on the town’s sustainability committee, told Policy Watch that until 2017, Boone had hoped to join several coastal counties that had enacted a ban. 

“I can assure you many of our members are still very interested in what our town could do,” David said. Earlier this summer, the Boone Town Council asked its attorney to research the legality of a Styrofoam ban.

EAB Chairman Matt Kopac told fee advocates to survey more businesses throughout the city and county, and to research the fee specifics. “It’s going to take some time,” he said. “It will evolve.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the Durham ordinance does not propose banning Styrofoam.


2019 08 01 Bag%20Fee%20Ordinance%20Draft FINAL (PDF)

2019 08 01 Bag%20Fee%20Ordinance%20Draft FINAL (Text)

2019 08 07 EABSurveyResults AZ (PDF)

2019 08 07 EABSurveyResults AZ (Text)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.