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By Will Atwater

An environmental advocacy group in Durham has been pushing for a county-wide proposal to put a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic bags. Activists across the state have been eagerly watching to see if Durham’s local government officials will move forward on what would be the only policy on the books in North Carolina aimed at preventing plastic waste from entering the environment. 

Advocates had hoped to see the issue discussed at a Durham Joint City-County Committee meeting on Tuesday, but due to a technical issue, it seems the bag fee proposal will be pushed off to a later date. Meanwhile, environmentalists say these are the kinds of policies needed statewide to combat the ever-growing microplastic waste problem. 

“We have to all work together, but I’m sick of just the continual focus on mitigation. Can we please also spend equal energy on prevention?” said Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, the nonprofit organization behind the bag fee proposal which works to prevent trash at the source.

The bag fee proposal in Durham is the kind of policy advocates at Waterkeepers Carolina, a nonprofit aimed at preserving the state’s waterways, say would be really helpful. The waterkeepers are in a downstream-battle to capture a constant flow of plastic waste before it enters the ocean. And they’re losing. 

The amount of plastic waste entering North Carolina’s waterways and soil is outpacing their capacity to remove it.

“The only way we’re going to make any kind of headway with this type of pollution problem is prevention, prevention, prevention,” said Lisa Rider, director of Coastal Carolina Riverwatch

“And policies are certainly at the top of the hierarchy in doing so.”

Don’t waste Durham’s plan

In 2021, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic developed the proposed 10-cent bag fee on behalf of the local nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham. A white paper produced by the law clinic and published on the nonprofit’s website states that while customers are given free plastic or paper bags at check-out counters, there are significant costs associated with using these materials.

“These bags have very real costs for our community: they contribute to litter on streets and in waterways, clog storm drains, take unlimited landfill space, and wreak havoc on recycling infrastructure.” 

The white paper also claims that it costs Durham more than $86,000 per year in related fees.

In drafting the plan, Dreisbach wanted to make sure the proposed ordinance did not penalize low-income residents. Durham shoppers who are on an assistance program, such as WIC or SNAP, would be exempt from the bag fee, she explained. 

Don’t Waste Durham also supports an initiative called Bull City Boomerang Bag whose mission is to assist communities in “tackling waste at its source.” Durham businesses such as Part & Parcel, Durham Co-op Market and Pennies for Change are some shops that offer free Bull City Boomerang Bags to their customers. A volunteer staff uses donated fabric to make the bags, which are then given away. 

Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, poses with a Durham Boomerang Bag in front of her office. Credit: Will Atwater

The goal is that free bags will reduce the burden for both shoppers and participating shop owners, because they will no longer have to stock their stores with plastic bags.  

Communities across the state with similar bag fee proposals — such as Boone, Asheville and Carrboro — will be eyeing what happens with the Don’t Waste Durham proposed ordinance with a sense of urgency.

“The litter that we see today is tomorrow’s microplastic pollution,” said Karim Olachea, communications director for Mountain True, an organization based in the Southern Blue Ridge area that supports communities through planning, policy and advocacy work.

“These policies are common sense ways to stop that pollution from entering our environment at the source.”

A growing problem

Annually, more than 400 million tons of plastic waste are produced across the globe, according to a United Nations Environmental report. Over time, a large percentage of the plastic waste will break down into smaller particles, commonly referred to as microplastics, which are less than 5 mm in length. 

Researchers warn that if current trends continue, by 2050, plastic debris could outnumber marine life in the world’s oceans.

Microplastics are also present on land. One contributing source are the tiny pellets made from pulverized car tires, also known as styrene butadiene, used in the manufacturing of artificial turf for athletic fields. 

Plastic waste isn’t just impacting marine life, but humans as well. A recent study found that 5 grams of plastic particles, which is roughly the weight of a credit card, are ingested by humans on a weekly basis.  

While there is no known link between microplastic ingestion and disease in humans, a study published last year found that people who have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) had a higher quantity of microplastic particles in their feces than healthy people. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD. 

In 2021, NC waterkeepers began sampling water from 15 locations across the state to learn more about what types of microplastics are present and how much is accumulating. This year, they installed trash trouts—which are pervious devices that float on the water and collect debris such as styrofoam cups and plastic bottles, for instance— at each site for clean-up and data collection purposes.

Three people dressed in waiters position a an aluminium structued in a creek. The device is tethered to white boeys that will keep it afloat.Three people dressed in waiters position a an aluminium structued in a creek. The device is tethered to white boeys that will keep it afloat.
In May, Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper, Jill Howell, center, worked with volunteers to position a trash trout in a Jack Smith Creek tributary located in New Bern. The installation is part of a trash audit that’s being conducted by NC riverkeepers. Audit results will be published in 2023. Credit: Will Atwater

“We’ve been able to pull numbers from that trash trout collection to really quantify how much [plastic waste] could be prevented from reaching our streams, if we were to have common sense plastic elimination legislation,” said Emily Sutton, Haw riverkeeper and project coordinator. Sutton said findings from the project will be published early in 2023. 

State legislative efforts

Activists and riverkeepers are not alone in their quest for legislation and policies to minimize plastic waste impacts on the environment.

Most recently, State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) cosponsored House Bill 959, which called for a ban on single-use and non-recyclable products. However, there has been no recent activity on the bill filed last year.

“HB 959 was referred to Rules after it was filed, which is [the committee] where bills go to die,” Harrison said. “Since we are mostly adjourned from this session, it will not be coming up.”

This was not the first time state lawmakers took interest in preventing plastic waste. In 2009, former Democratic state Sen. Marc Basnight of Dare County introduced legislation that called for a ban on single-use plastic bags in retail stores located in Outer Banks communities. The legislation passed and a ban was set in place from 2009 until 2017, when it was repealed by a Republican-led legislature. 

Critics argued that the ban unfairly taxed merchants who had to offer $.05 cent refunds or other incentives for customers who shopped with reusable bags. They also argued that paper bags were worse for the environment than plastic.  

However, after a period of transition for residents and retailers, there was a noticeable difference in the environment, according to Ivy Ingram, Kill Devil Hills commissioner and mayor pro tempore.

“For years, you could go and not see a plastic bag stuck in a tree or lying  in a drainage ditch that flows [into] our stormwater that flows to the sound and flows to the ocean.”

It’s been five years since the ban was repealed and Ingram says that on a windy day it is not uncommon to see plastic bags clinging to tree branches in the area. 

Incremental change

While there are no single-use plastic bag bans or fees in place in North Carolina at the moment, there are several communities where retail establishments such as restaurants and coffee shops are adopting environmentally friendly policies regarding how they operate.

One example of this is the Ocean Friendly Establishment program (OFE). OFE was established in 2015 in North Carolina Coastal communities. Program participants receive a certification for reducing plastic waste and adopting sustainable practices, according to the OFE website.

Recently, Wegmans, a national grocery store chain, stopped offering plastic bags in its North Carolina and Virginia stores.

“As we’ve encountered plastic bag legislation in numerous markets, we’ve learned there’s more we can do, and a bigger impact we can make, together with our customers,” said company representative, Jason Wadsworth, in a press release.

Nationally, there are 10 states plus Puerto Rico that have instituted single-use plastic bag bans. None are located in the South.  

However, if local municipalities such as Durham, Asheville and others are going to support these initiatives that call for a ban or add a fee to single-use plastic bags, they will need to determine whether they have the legal authority to do so. 

Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Associations (NCRMA) does not think the authority rests with municipalities. Ellen says that the North Carolina General Assembly has sole authority to enact fees or bans.

However, ordinance supporters argue that the North Carolina Waste Management Act gives local municipalities the authority to impose fees as a part of waste reduction efforts. 

Until this issue is settled, NC riverkeepers will continue to pull waste out of the waterways and tell anyone who will listen that prevention measures are vital to turning the tide on this growing problem.

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