By Will Atwater
Environmental advocates across the state were shocked last week by the insertion of a provision in House Bill 259, now part of the 2023-24 state budget, that blocks local municipalities from establishing ordinances to reduce single-use plastic use.
“Plastic waste is a scourge on our society on many levels,” said Will Weldon, board chair of Don’t Waste Durham, a nonprofit organization working to eliminate waste by establishing a so-called circular economy, a system designed to “keep materials, products and services in circulation for as long as possible” to slow climate change, according to the EPA. If fewer single-use materials, such as plastics, are produced, it lowers CO2 emissions from fossil fuels used to make plastics, and it reduces emissions from plastic waste decomposition.
“Our landfills are reaching capacity faster than ever, and plastic waste frequently ends up in our waterways,” he added. “Restrictions on plastic and Styrofoam products are crucial for helping our community move toward reuse solutions.”
Weldon, joined by Michelle Nowlin and Nancy Lauer from the Duke University Policy and Law Clinic, shared his comments at last Thursday’s City of Durham Council Work Session. The three are members of a Durham and broader coalition that is working to reduce plastic waste, and they came to deliver a presentation on the benefits of a plastic bag ordinance.
After years of compiling research and conversations with city officials, groups in Durham, Asheville and Boone were hopeful that their work would pay off and that city councils across the state would support their efforts.
Instead, news of the provision, which some critics see as a power grab, weakened the momentum groups had before last week.
“This is what you get when you allow lobbyists to, almost directly, write language that is overly broad, overly sweeping,” said Karim Olaechea, deputy director of strategy and communications at MountainTrue, an environmental advocacy organization with three offices in western North Carolina.
Susannah Knox, senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, agrees with Olaechea’s assessment.
“Although the proposed language ostensibly targets the plastic bag bans that some local governments are considering, it is much broader than that, prohibiting local governments from any regulation of ‘the use, disposition, or sale of an auxiliary container (153A-145.11),’” Knox wrote in an email to NC Health News.
The provision defines “auxiliary container” to include a bag, cup, package, container and bottle, among other items.
The case against single-use plastic
Oceana, an organization that advocates for cleaner oceans, reports that roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic is deposited into the ocean annually. More than 14.5 million tons of plastic debris were dumped in landfills in 2018, according to the EPA, and a 2021 UN Environment Programme report states that the annual global cost associated with plastic pollution was $19 billion in 2018.
A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that humans digest roughly 5 grams, or a credit-card size amount, of microplastics weekly. While there is no consensus on whether there is a link between microplastic ingestion and human disease, research is underway.
Another study found that people with 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.
NC Health News has reported on efforts by North Carolina waterkeepers to keep plastic debris out of waterways.
Lauer, a staff scientist at the Duke University Policy and Law Clinic, is working with Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, who organizes volunteer cleanups at Durham’s Third Fork Creek, to collect data on the debris pulled out of the creek.
In an email, Lauer said that “Between June 2022 and July 2023,” more than 34,000 “pieces of litter total (that’s basically an average one piece of litter every 15 minutes…)” were pulled out of Third Fork Creek.
She added that more than 34,744 “of those pieces are Styrofoam while 3,936 pieces are other types of plastic. We consider Styrofoam a type of plastic, so it would be accurate to say that of the 34,744 pieces, 98 percent of them are Styrofoam.
Lauer also noted that the trash traps used to collect debris are only effective at corralling floating objects. Therefore, “Other plastics — like bags and food wrappers — are still very commonly found in the streams, but they get snagged or lodged with sediment and aren’t commonly captured by the trash trap.”
The case against a plastic bag ordinance
Andy Ellen, president and general counsel for the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, has long contended that the North Carolina Solid Waste Act does not provide authority to enact plastic bag fees, a significant disagreement between those for and against the measure.
“This provision ensures consistency throughout the state instead of a patchwork of rules city by city and county by county,” Ellen wrote. “We strongly believe before the passage of the budget provision that local governments were already prohibited, both constitutionally and statutorily, from banning plastic bags and other containers and taxing their citizens for these items.”
“The newly enacted provision was in response to a push to challenge current law and will hopefully head off costly litigation for everyone involved,” he said. “We all want a clean environment, and we believe that consumer education remains the best solution to the problem the cities in Buncombe County and Durham were seeking to solve instead of banning and taxing plastic bags, utensils, and containers.”
But, state Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, said that although the anti-ordinance language made it into the final budget, the battle continues.red
“The Retail Merchants Association, who has long been opposed to these plastic bag bans, has won this round.” Mayfield said. “What’s clear to us as advocates on this issue is that public sentiment is with us. And even the sentiment of the business community and the larger community is with us. A number of retailers already don’t have plastic bags or are moving in that direction.”
Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham and current CEO of Upstream, an organization that works with leaders and organizations on developing a circular economy built on a reuse model, offered the following response to the anti-plastic bag ordinance:
“One of the things we’ve learned, obviously in the last 72 hours, is that dragging your feet on passing important policy for your community is harmful […] as we’ve seen by the actions of the state legislature.”
However, even if an ordinance is passed, it can still be overturned, which is what happened with the single-use plastic bag ban that was championed by former Democratic state Sen. Marc Basnight of Dare County. The ban was in place on the Outer Banks from 2009 until 2017, when it was repealed by a Republican-led legislature.
A major sticking point for both sides of the issue is whether the Solid Waste Management Act gives municipalities the power to install regulations to address waste issues, such as banning single-use plastics, or if the power rests solely with the legislature.
Advocates for single-use plastic reduction point to a section that states, in part, that: “The governing board of each unit of local government shall assess local solid waste collection services and disposal capacity and local governments shall determine the adequacy of collection services and disposal capacity to meet local needs and to protect human health and the environment. Each unit of local government shall implement programs and take other actions that it determines are necessary to address deficiencies in service or capacity required to meet local needs and to protect human health and the environment.”
Examining the cost
Opponents raise concerns about the proposed 10 cent plastic bag fee and how it would disproportionately burden low-income communities of color.
But advocates argue that the actual cost of single-use plastic production is not only felt by low-income communities in the form of health disparities faced by residents who live near fossil-fuel-driven manufacturing facilities and landfills, such as the GFL Sampson County Landfill, but by the entire planet.
“Because of the expected rise in plastic production in years to come, it’s [anticipated] that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach up to 13 percent of our carbon budget,” Lauer told Durham City Council members during the group’s presentation. “Our carbon budget [is] the amount of greenhouse gas that we can emit into the atmosphere and still stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.”
For instance, the City of Durham’s landfill closed years ago, and now its trash is collected at a weigh station and then trucked roughly 100 miles to the Sampson County Landfill, recently reported to be the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions among municipal landfills in the U.S.
What’s more, advocates of plastic reduction argue that projects like the Bull City Boomerang Bag program, a project supported by Don’t Waste Durham that “aims to make free and equitable access to reusable bags,” minimize waste, according to the organization’s website.
Volunteers come together and use donated fabric to sew bags that are placed in participating retail shops in Durham and available at no cost to shoppers who can’t afford to pay for a plastic bag.
In addition to the Boomerang Bags, customers “who are recipients of SNAP with Medicaid and housing voucher benefits” would not have to pay the bag fee, said Nowlin, of the Duke Law and Policy Clinic.
Nowlin also reminded the council that there’s a price associated with maintaining the status quo.
“When [retailers] hand out plastic or paper bags to customers, that costs the business money,” she said. “It doesn’t come to them free of charge. Those businesses also have to pay for waste management, so any [waste reduction] that they have to manage [will] save them money.”
Organizations in western North Carolina that want to establish a bag fee have also addressed this issue in their proposals.
Nowlin addressed the City of Durham council members after Welldon and Lauer. She reiterated the disappointment felt by the coalition of advocates working to address plastic waste.
“This was going to be a very exciting week, not only for us, but for other partners we’ve been working with across the state. Several communities have already adopted resolutions and support action to reduce plastic materials within their communities,” Nowlin said.
“I want to make it clear that not only are we disappointed and frustrated with this action, but we’re also very frustrated and disappointed for the city because you still bear the responsibility for managing waste,” she added.
After the presentation, Council Member Javiera Caballero urged her colleagues to move forward despite news of the preemptive anti-plastic ban ordinance provision in the budget.
“I encourage our colleagues to go ahead and pass the ordinance this fall,” she said, “because the folks who’ve been doing this work had to go through two councils, and we didn’t want them to have to wait and educate a third council to do what we knew needed to happen to make Durham a better, healthier community.”
However, Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton voiced concern about challenging the state legislature by establishing a plastic bag ordinance.
“Of all the battles we can choose from to ‘poke the bear’ on with the legislature […] I don’t think this is the one I’d want to invite a battle with the legislature on, particularly when we have some credible ways to move forward,” Middleton said.
The presentation ended with Mayor Elaine O’Neal asking council members to reconvene in December or January with a plan to inform retailers and residents about the importance of reducing single-use plastic consumption and how they can participate in a city-wide effort to reduce the burden of plastic on the environment.
“I think what I’m hearing is that we as a council would be willing to look more deeply into the educational [component],” O’Neal said. “But first, we’d like to know, of course, what’s going to happen in Raleigh.”