Plastic bag bans have been slow to take hold in the U.S., and the COVID-19 pandemic created additional complications. Nevertheless, momentum is building again, and leading retailers have an opportunity to get out in front of the national conversation as advocates. However, they had better act fast, before shopping bags become the next target for politically charged conspiracy theories leading to verbal and physical attacks on frontline retail workers.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the only two statewide plastic bag bans in the U.S. were imposed in California in 2014 and in Hawaii between 2011 and 2015. Washington, D.C. was also an early adopter, having passed a ban in 2009.
Momentum for change finally took hold in 2019 when six states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont — all passed plastic bag bans. A seventh state, New Jersey, signed a ban into law just last month, bringing the total of state-based bans to nine.
At first, the pandemic appeared to throw a lifeline to plastic bag stakeholders. Consumers became more inclined to accept disposable plastic bags as a means of preventing the spread of the virus, a sentiment encouraged by industry stakeholders.
So far, however, the available evidence does not support single-use plastic shopping bags as an effective part of the COVID-19 prevention toolkit. In fact, it appears that the virus may remain active for longer periods on plastic surfaces compared to other materials.
If plastic bag industry stakeholders hoped for an opportunity to re-argue their case in the public square, it seems the opportunity has slipped through their fingers.
One representative example is Boston, which temporarily suspended its municipal ban on plastic bags last March only to re-implement it in October.
The National Conference of State Legislatures recently took stock of state and local legislation on plastic bags and noted that state-based efforts to manage plastic bag waste date back at least as far as 1991, mainly through fees, public education efforts and recycling improvements.
During the 2019 legislative cycle, plastic bag stakeholders did win rollbacks or preemptions in some cases. However, among the almost 100 pieces of plastic bag legislation introduced in that year, the trend favored more regulation, not less. The result is now a patchwork of state-based regulations taking effect within the next two years. Almost all of the new activity is concentrated in the northeastern U.S., with Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York all joining Maine.
The momentum for plastic bag bans also appears to be drifting down to the greater D.C. region. A new bag ban almost passed the Maryland legislature in 2020, which could set the stage for eventual success.
The adoption of plastic bag bans among northeast states closely mirrors the Democratic political identity of the region. A similar situation has occurred on the west coast, within the blue-identified states of California and Oregon. That entwining of political identity and shopping bags is bound to complicate matters for regional and national retail chains, potentially exposing their frontline employees to the same kind of verbal and physical abuse that has occurred over face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The failure to establish a firm federal policy on public safety has transformed the simple act of wearing a protective face mask into a politically charged platform for emotional outbursts and self-aggrandizing claims for personal freedom at the expense of public health.
To protect their employees and customers, leading retailers have been forced to take the initiative on face masks, with or without the support of governors in their home states.
Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. Even as COVID-19 continues to kill thousands of Americans every day, millions of other Americans cling to the belief that their personal opinion on face masks overrides any sense of responsibility to protect human life and health.
Adding to the problem, mask protesters have been radicalized and re-energized in the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, joining in a toxic stew of personal grievance with self-appointed “militia,” white supremacists and proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Outgoing President Donald Trump has stirred the emotional pot to his own advantage ever since losing his chance at a second term in office, all but guaranteeing that mass hysteria will continue to dominate the public conversation for years to come, whether the topic is a lethal virus or a simple shopping bag.
Leading retailers hoping for a return to normalcy after President-elect Joe Biden takes office will need to stop hoping and start being proactive. The movement to ban plastic bags is a benefit for retailers seeking to decarbonize their supply chains, but it will remain out of reach if the issue is politicized beyond its current coastal enclaves.
Advocating for a return to reason, science and civic responsibility is not just a job for government. It is an all-hands-on-deck drill and a prerequisite for progress.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.