Connecticut shoppers enter a new era on Thursday when retailers must begin collecting a 10-cent fee on most plastic bags used to carry products.
The fee was proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont to discourage use of the environmentally damaging bags used for years in supermarkets, department stores and many other types of retail outlets.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States each year. When not disposed of properly, they can end up in waterways and in forests, posing a threat to wildlife. An estimated 700 million plastic bags are used by Connecticut consumers each year.
“Everyone should go to a landfill and see what it looks like and you will see the impact” of these plastic bags, said state Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Scott Jackson. “It has changed our lives. It really is shocking.”
Although few will dispute the need to reduce plastic use, state officials and retailers are bracing for some initial confusion as the new law takes effect because of the way it was crafted — and the responses it has generated from the marketplace.
But in the hope of minimizing any chaos, here’s five things you need to know about Connecticut’s new plastic bag law:
1. Not all plastic bags are created equal
The new fee starting Thursday applies to some plastic bags, but not to all of them.
It specifically is focused on “checkout bags.” In other words, that means bags you use to carry items out of the store.
Plastic bags used, for example, in a supermarket deli to hold cheese or cold cuts don’t count. The same goes for bags made available to shoppers in the fruit and vegetable section to hold a few tomatoes or a bunch of grapes.
And even some “checkout bags” are exempt. The new fee specifically is aimed at bags with a thickness of less than four mils — or four one-thousandths of an inch. But that does involve the majority of plastic bags used in retail stores.
Plastic bags used to hold dry cleaning and laundry are exempt. So is the plastic bag your newspaper is wrapped in when it’s left in your mailbox. Still, that brings us to the next point …
2. It’s not just about supermarkets and grocery stores
Though supermarkets have grabbed the bulk of the headlines since the new fee was enacted in June, most retailers have to collect the dime on plastic bags.
Department stores, pharmacies, convenience outlets, hardware stores and virtually any other type of retailers, as well as restaurants and food trucks.
If they’re selling food or merchandise and you’re taking it away in a thin plastic bag, you’re most likely paying the fee.
Think you’ve got it straight? Don’t be so sure, because …
3. There’s going to be some confusion
“It’s not like retailers have had a lot of time from the end of the legislative session [on June 5] to Aug. 1 to put a plan in place,” said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents about 400 supermarkets and grocery stores. “We’re making lemonade out of lemons when it comes to crafting policy out of new law.”
“I think there’s always concern that there is confusion when a new law goes into effect,” said Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association. “My sense is there will not be a uniform approach initially.”
Because some stores currently offer only plastic bags, while others offer paper bags for free. And some plan to offer paper bags and charge for them.
Pesce noted that nearly all supermarkets sell reusable bags — most of which are made of cloth.
Big Y, the Springfield, Mass.-based supermarket chain, announced earlier this month it would remove plastic bags entirely from its stores beginning Aug. 1, and Stop & Shop, which operates 91 stores in Connecticut, followed suit this week. Stop & Shop said it will provide free paper bags for the month of August and then charge a 10-cent fee on paper bags starting Sept. 3.
Big Y, which had planned to remove plastic bags from its 80 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut by 2020, opted to move up its timetable after lawmakers here approved the fee. Big Y offers reusable bags that customers can purchase. It also will make paper bags available for one-time use, at a charge of 10 cents per bag.
Pesce said there also likely will be confusion as stores try different organizational schemes to avoid slowdowns at checkout time.
For example, what will happen in the automated checkout lanes? Most customers currently bag their own purchases after they pay, and the bags are usually posted at the end of the checkout line.
Will customers have to guess how many bags they need first, pay for them, and then pack away their goods hoping they’ve bought enough bags to hold their purchases?
“Each retailer is going to determine, based on their own business model, what they need to do,” Pesce added. “It’s going to evolve over time.”
The Department of Revenue Services has been peppered with questions since the law was enacted and is working with retailers to reach out and inform consumers. DRS posted 18 frequently asked questions about the new law — and the corresponding answers, on its website, and Jackson warned “It could be 20 questions by next week. … The truth is that the question-and-answer sheet continues to grow.”
The first six to eight weeks of the new program could be the most challenging, Jackson added, as consumers realize just how many types of retail outlets rely on plastic bags.
But things still could be confusing for quite a while after that because …
4. Cities and towns can adopt plastic bag rules as well
Communities cannot cancel or waive the 10-cent fee, but they can impose even stricter limitations on carryout bags than the state. Nearly 20 municipalities already have adopted plastic bag restrictions by local ordinance.
For example, Hamden and Middletown banned plastic bags altogether.
Weston only allows plastic bags that are more than 2.25 mils in thickness and paper bags that contain no old growth tree fiber and are 100 percent recyclable.
In fact, Connecticut consumers may not see much uniformity when it comes to carryout bags until July 1, 2021. That’s when …
5. The state is supposed to ban plastic carryout bags in mid-2021
The new law calls for the 10-cent fee to start on Thursday and continue until June 30, 2021. After that, plastic carryout bags with less than 4 mils of thickness would be prohibited.
But legislators also could delay that date.
Why might they consider a delay?
According to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the plastic bag fee will generate about $27 million per year for the state’s coffers.
That’s a lot of money to pass up.