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House committee recommends 10-cent plastic bag charge in NH, on party lines 

  • A shopper places her goods into her car outside a supermarket in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. New Zealand plans to ban disposable plastic shopping bags by next July as the nation tries to live up to its clean-and-green image. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday that New Zealanders use hundreds of millions of the bags each year and that some of them end up polluting the precious coastal and marine environment. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/7/2019 10:11:26 PM
Modified: 11/7/2019 10:11:15 PM

CONCORD — Policymakers and advocates have struggled for decades to encourage consumers to reduce their use of throw-away plastic.

But Rep. Tim Josephson says he’s seen the best approach firsthand.

Josephson, a general manager at Lucky’s Coffee Garage in Lebanon, had long wanted to cut down on consumers’ use of plastic coffee cups. First, the cafe started with a positive approach, offering a 25-cent discount for customers who brought in their own cups. A handful of patrons took them up each day, but the plastic cups still flooded the coffee shop’s trash.

Then, the Lucky’s owner proposed a reverse approach: a penalty. Customers are now charged 25 cents for each single-use plastic cup they order. They pay nothing if they bring their own.

Very quickly, the behavior changed.

“We probably went from filling three to four little cups a day to now well over 50,” he said. “What it did was it changed people’s habits.”

This year, Josephson is attempting to apply that exercise in behavioral economics to a state policy. On Thursday, Josephson and 10 other Democrats on the House Municipal and County Government committee voted to recommend a bill to add a similar surcharge onto grocery store bags and others.

The amended version of HB 559 would require that businesses charge customers for each bag issued at the point of sale, at a rate of at least 10 cents but no more than 50 cents per bag.

And it would set new standards for exactly which kinds of bags could be offered, mandating that the majority be thick — at least 4 mils, which is 4 thousandths of an inch. That would mean the bags distributed would last longer for potential multiple uses.

Reusable bags would be exempt from the 10- to 50-cent window.

“It’s more about really getting people to think about their consumption,” Josephson said. “If you make the conscious change in people’s buying habits, then they will make the conscious change in their shopping habits.”

Vermont this year passed legislation that bans retailers from offering single-use plastic bags at checkout counters starting next summer. The legislation still allows small plastic bags for produce and enable stores to offer paper bags at 10 cents a piece.

The amendment is the final adjustment to the New Hampshire bill, which will head to the House floor in January after months of deliberations over how to regulate plastic bags.

But it also faces strong skepticism from Republicans and industry representatives, who argue it’s burdensome and unnecessary and who say changes should come from consumers themselves.

“This isn’t the time for this,” said Rep. John MacDonald, a Wolfeboro Republican who joined the rest of the Republicans on the committee in voting against the bill. “Let’s do education and try and get the word out to people.”

In a statement Tuesday, House Republican leader Dick Hinch slammed the bill as a “plastic bag tax” and “a heavy-handed mandate to address a problem that state officials have disclosed does not exist.”

To supporters, the bag charge is a middle-ground solution between banning the bags entirely and not taking action — one that meets a demand from pollution-minded citizens.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is get people to think about how much waste there is,” said Rep. Marjorie Porter, a Hillsborough Democrat. “ ’Cause it is at a crisis at this point.”

For Rep. Laurel Stavis, a Lebanon Democrat, the yearslong tussle over whether and how much to use plastic bags hits close to her place of work: Price Chopper in the city.

The store produces a lot of plastic bag waste as it is, Stavis said; frequently, store employees receive reams of plastic bags with a fundamental defect. It’s often a tear in the seam that makes the whole batch unusable, sending it all to the trash.

And customers constantly ask why the bags are still around, Stavis said.

“People want them to go away,” Stavis said.

But some opponents say the issues are overblown, and the solutions are overreaching.

“I think, like anything, nobody wants to pollute,” MacDonald said. But he added: “It’s not really a problem at this time but it’s something that may be a problem 100 to 120 years from now.”

MacDonald contended that the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services should come forward and ask for support if there’s a need to address plastic pollution in the state.

“There’s no one who’s come forward from the state that says this is a crisis, we need to do this,” he said. “If they don’t come forward, if they don’t ask for more money for this position to be restarted, what are we supposed to do?”

Other opponents noted potential increased cost for lower-income families.

Rep. Tom Dolan, a Londonderry Republican, raised concerns around people on food stamps having to pay for the bags out of pocket.

“My question is not whether it’s fair or not,” Dolan said. “My question is whether it’s legal.”

Another representative, Mona Perreault, a Rochester Republican, raised the issue that non-plastic, reusable bags can become unhygienic when not sanitized after each use, something she said consumers may not be diligent about doing.

Porter pushed back at the arguments.

“This isn’t something that people are being forced to pay,” she said. “If they bring their own bags, they don’t pay it. If they don’t bring their bags, they do. It’s a convenience that the stores are providing for them for an extra fee.”

The bill is part of a slew of attempts in recent years by Democrats to regulate single-use plastics like straws and bags. On Thursday, the committee passed a separate bill to empower towns to institute plastic bag bans within town limits, HB 102.

But so far all of the proposed single-use plastic regulations out of the House committee have met stiff industry opposition, from the blanket bans to the bills enabling town-by-town controls.

In an email sent to the Municipal and County Government committee Wednesday, the New Hampshire Retail Association raised alarms about the restrictions the law imposes on what kinds of bags can be bought.

The bill requires that bags larger than 150 square inches be 4 mils thick; sourcing those kinds of heavier bags could add costs to businesses, the Association said.

More broadly, the Association argued that laws around plastic bags are not needed: After consulting its members, the Association said, “feedback indicates that the trend is in the right direction relative to plastic bag distribution.”

“Some are already eliminating plastic bags, some have moved to plastic with recycled content, and most ask the customer if a bag is necessary,” the Retail Association wrote in its email.

Critics of government initiatives have urged stronger education efforts. Supporters say they’re tired of waiting for patterns to change.

“Getting the bags to go away through education and consumer habits alone is difficult,” Stavis argued. The current system does not incentivize people to reuse the bags they receive, she said.

“If you go to a store and you buy something, then you own that thing,” she said. “But when you’re given something, your impetus to keep it is nil. Your impetus is to throw it away.

“We are giving away thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars of plastic bags for no particularly good reason.”

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