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Does Delaware's New Plastic Bag Ban Go Far Enough? Local Experts Weigh In

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Adobe Stock./By aquar

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Picture this: your local Trader Joe’s on a busy Sunday afternoon. The parking lot bursts at the seams and lines of customers curl all the way to the back of the store—but there’s not a single flimsy plastic bag in sight. This could soon be a familiar sight in Delaware—Gov. John Carney signed House Bill 130 in July, which bans single-use plastic bags in some stores effective January 2021.

It’s no secret that single-use plastic bags are a nuisance to the environment. They pollute our oceans, clog our drains and they’re an eyesore in our parks and streets. And, disturbingly, plastic can end up in our food chain in the form of microplastics, with potentially nasty health consequences.

Delaware is one of just a handful of states—including CaliforniaNew YorkHawaii and Maine—to have passed state-wide plastic ban bans. Some cities and municipalities across the country have also enacted bans or restrictions on plastic bags. For Delaware environmentalists, the ban has been a long time coming.

Dee Durham, New Castle County Councilwoman and founder of Plastic Free Delaware, has advocated for the ban for ten years. She notes that public resistance to the ban has greatly diminished over time as more people understand the harms of single-use plastic.

“Compared to three years ago when we had House Bill 202, there really wasn’t much pushback at all,” Durham says.

The main complaints she still hears are from consumers who reuse grocery store bags for trash or dog waste, who now have to pay for these separately. To that, she counters that the cost of plastic bag pollution and its potential health impacts are much greater than the cost of the bags themselves. On average, people throw out their plastic bags after only 12 minutes.

“I hope that it starts to become kind of consumer-driven where people realize the importance of not using plastic bags, and it’s just the cool, trendy thing to do for businesses.”
—Danielle Dixson, University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Envoirnment

While the bill was in the works, she corresponded closely with Julie Miro Wenger, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council, a non-profit organization that represents many of the retailers the ban will target. She says Wenger and many Delaware stores the council represents have been largely supportive as the bill has come together.

“They have been part of the conversation for the last 10 years,” she says. “They are going to abide by the law, I’m sure.”

However, the ban in Delaware is not without caveats. The bill only prohibits plastic bags in stores larger than 7,000 square feet, and restaurants are not included in the ban. It also does not ban paper bags, which opens the door for retailers to simply switch bag materials instead of phasing out single use bags entirely.

The Delaware bill is also unusual in that it does not enact a bag fee of any kind, which could be more effective than an all-out ban. Plastic-free advocates lament that the bill does not go further to reduce single use waste. The lack of restrictions on paper bags is a particular letdown, because paper bags have the potential to wreak environmental havoc.

“I don’t think people understand how bad paper is for the environment,” says Danielle Dixson, assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. “It causes a lot of trees to be cut down, it uses a lot of water…often these trees are in remote locations so it uses a lot of fossil fuels to move the trees.”

Delaware environmentalists aren’t throwing in the towel anytime soon, though. In fact, many are setting their sights beyond single-use bags alone. Plastic Free Delaware is collaborating with Delaware lawmakers on bills to ban polystyrene and mass balloon releases that will appear on the House floor next year. The group is also collaborating with the Delaware Restaurant Association to ensure straws are available by request only across the state.

“We’re definitely thrilled to see Delaware taking some steps that put us at the front of this movement in this country.”
—Laura Miller, Delaware Nature Society

The advocacy arm of the Delaware Nature Society (DNS) is doing its part as well. Activists will testify and advocate for any single-use waste bans that appear on the floor next legislative season, says Laura Miller, DNS outreach coordinator. The statewide environmental non-profit also collaborates with the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed to prevent plastic waste from entering the waterway.

To activists, the ban is a good start. Though its loopholes mean that plastic bags are sticking around in Delaware for now. But phasing out single use waste entirely will take more than just bills and policies. For restaurants and consumers alike, making a conscious decision to say ‘no’ to single-use plastic is essential to making waste pollution a thing of the past.

“I hope that it starts to become kind of consumer-driven where people realize the importance of not using plastic bags, and it’s just the cool, trendy thing to do for businesses,” says Dixson.

Delaware environmentalists have their work cut out for them in the years to come. In light of House Bill 130, they’re hopeful that Delawareans are open to change.

“We’re definitely thrilled to see Delaware taking some steps that put us at the front of this movement in this country,” says Miller.