The plastic bag ban starts Jan. 1. There will be exceptions.

A state hearing on new plastic bag rules showed bags that could be used.

A state hearing on new plastic bag rules showed bags that could be used.

A virtual workshop on Wednesday was another step in Delaware implementing a ban on thin, single-use carry-out bags at some large retailers, starting Jan. 1.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control sought public feedback on draft regulations.

“What we don’t want is a lot of confusion of what can and cannot be recycled,” said Adam Schlachter, manager of DNREC’s Pollution Prevention Program.

 

That’ll be tough. Don Long of DNREC’s Division of Waste & Hazardous Substances started out the workshop, which drew more than 70 participants, by showing various bags, contrasting single-use plastic bags with thicker and reusable plastic bags and reusable bags that can’t be recycled.

At its core, the law applies to stores that cover at least 7,000 square feet or chains that have three or more locations of at least 3,000 square feet. The law allows for multiple exceptions, and the draft regulations get into the weeds, so to speak, for four pages of what retailers need to do. 

Stores that use plastic bags must have an at-store recycling program for clean and dry plastic bags and films, Schlachter said, tracking that they’re collecting bags from consumers and recycling them properly. Such bins should be consistently labeled across the state.

 

That’s another toughie.

“Many stores seem to have removed their plastic bag recycling containers,” Helga Huntley said in the meeting chat. “Is there a COVID-19 exemption to the recycling mandate?”

“The answer to that is ‘no,’” Schlachter said, suggesting the complaints about missing recycling bins go to the Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances at 800-662-8802 or 302-739-9401.

Recycling the bags into something useful is another toughie.

“It’s really easy to collect plastic, but it’s hard to find a place for what we make,” said Jim Kelley, co-founder of Eco Plastic Products of Delaware, a nonprofit that makes things like park benches and picnic tables from recycled plastic.

 

Delaware’s draft regulations call for all plastic bags to have be at least 5% post-consumer content by Jan. 1, 2022, with that percentage rising in the future. Reusable bags must be “capable of carrying 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet for a minimum of 125 uses,” the draft regulations say.

“We don’t want to make this into something that’s unachievable,” Schlachter said in the workshop.

Delaware’s upcoming law specifically allows single-use bags for seven things:

 

  • Bags for frozen foods, meat or fish; flowers or potted plants; or other items to contain dampness.
  • Bags sold in packages intended for consumers to use for garbage, pet waste or yard waste.
  • Bags used to contain live animals such as fish or insects sold in pet stores.
  • Bags used to transport chemical pesticides, drain-cleaning chemicals or other caustic chemicals.
  • Nonhandled bags used to protect a purchased item from damaging or contaminating other purchased items when placed in a recycled paper bag or a reusable grocery bag.
  • Bags provided to contain an unwrapped food item.
  • Nonhandled bags designed to cover clothing on a hanger.

 

The draft regulations say that places still allowed to use one-use bags, like carry-out restaurants, should use bags that say this: “This plastic bag is reusable and should be returned to Stores for recycling. Bags are not accepted in curbside recycling programs.” 

Schlachter said a public hearing on final regulations will probably be toward the end of October.

Delaware is the fourth state outlawing single-use plastic bags, joining California, New York and Vermont. Single-use items, paper and packaging make up almost a third of Vermont’s trash, the state Department of Environmental Conservation figures. Vermont’s law, which went into effect July 1, covers bags, plastic straws and stirrers and expanded polystyrene.

 

Not everyone is thrilled with the law. Opponents point out that fewer than 2,000 plastic bags were collected on Delaware’s coastal beaches during the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup Day, amid more than two tons of trash collected. But the bill that became law also quoted that fact.

According to Plastic Free Delaware, a voluntary 2009 recycling law has failed to meaningfully shift shoppers toward reusable bags. 

But charging for bags will make consumers think twice, said co-founder Dee Durham, noting that usage dropped 60% overnight when the District of Columbia adopted a fee for plastic bags.

“People think we’re getting the bags for free, but we’re not,” Durham said. “A fee externalizes the cost.”

 

No one at the meeting said what specific retailers plan to do come Jan. 1. Their options include giving or selling paper bags, giving or selling reusable bags and inviting consumers to skip bags or bring their own bags, said Durham, also a New Castle County Council member.

Plastic Free Delaware has “moved beyond bags,” Durham said, to polystyrene containers, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and balloon releases. “We already consider balloon releases to be illegal littering,” she said. “You just don’t see where they land.”


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Ken Mammarella

Ken Mammarella is a freelance writer who lives in Wilmington.