The Word in the Hoouse 2/16/2017 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Bags

The last time I went grocery shopping I tried to observe how many shoppers brought their own reusable bags to the checkout counter and how many used the disposable bags provided by the store. Very few shoppers that I observed actually brought their own reusable bags. Many walked out with four or more single-use plastic bags of groceries. While many of the larger supermarkets have barrels in the entry for recycling plastic bags and other thin film plastic, the bins are rarely full. Paper bags are somewhat better on the environment because they are made from a renewable resource (wood) and are more easily recycled. But they are also used only once or twice and involve an energy and chemically intensive manufacturing process.

So what happens to all the plastic bags that go home day after day, week after week, with us? If you're like me, they might get a second use like lining a small trash can before they get thrown away. On the other hand, heavy duty plastic or cloth bags can be used over and over many times. Americans consume 100 billion plastic bags per year, about 325 per person. Most in Vermont find their way to a landfill. One of the board members that oversaw the now-closed Moretown landfill told me that he would see hundreds of plastic bags blowing around during a strong wind. The only way to prevent that from happening was to quickly cover trash with dirt, which in turn lessened the capacity of the landfill. This is a serious concern because the Coventry landfill is the only one left in Vermont, and we have to make it last as long as possible.

So, the question is, what do we do about this problem? I and several colleagues introduced House bill H.88 seeking to reduce consumption of raw materials and the impact on the environment of disposable bags. It does this by putting a ten cent fee on disposable bags at the checkout counter. It is a tax, but an avoidable one simply by bringing your own reusable bag. Two cents of the tax is retained by the store and eight cents would be remitted to Vermont's Solid Waste Assistance Fund, which helps support the solid waste districts across the state. The bill also includes exemptions for small bags used for produce, newspapers, pet fish, etc., and a total exemption from the program for small retailers that typically dispense less than 20,000 bags per year, roughly 50 per day. Experiences with similar programs in states and cities across the U.S. have shown a decrease in the use of disposable bags of up to 40%. Retailers will save money by not having to buy as many bags, the cost of which is spread out over their merchandise. Some retailers already offer a small credit of 3 cents for each reusable bag brought by a customer. This has been shown to be not as effective as a fee because people are more likely to change their behavior in response to a loss of something than for a potential small gain. The bottom line is that this program will be a win for the environment, a win for the retailer, a win for consumers who take advantage of the program, and a win for our recycling program.

H.88 has been assigned to the Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee for consideration. They will be hearing testimony from consumers, retailers, environmental organizations and other interested parties over the next few months.

As always, I invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (