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.”

Why not?

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.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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12 Comments

  1. “The fee was proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont to discourage use of the environmentally damaging bags…” vs. “…the plastic bag fee will generate about $27 million per year for the state’s coffers.” Which one do you think is the REAL motivation?

    1. I believe it to be the first scenario. If the latter was the actual motivation, the 10-cent fee (i.e.: tax) would be put in place permanently rather than just during a transition phase that is slated to run less than two years. I think that the only reason for the transition period is because Connecticut is full of cry babies who would otherwise be whining that they need more time to adapt and businesses whining that they need more time to retrofit their stores to accommodate new setups. I would have preferred to just see an immediate ban, but we must placate the crybaby population. I firmly believe that this problem started when they began passing out participation trophies in elementary school!

      1. Tami – I remember a number of years ago when stores were encouraged to switch from paper bags to plastic bags in order to “save the environment.” Now exactly the opposite is being encouraged by this scenario. I feel sorry for the businesses who have to not only continue to purchase the bags but also have to put into place mechanisms to track the tax collection and monthly (I’m guessing) reporting (a la sales tax) with the usual extra fees and penalties if they’re a minute late in filing but with no reimbursement at all for doing so. At least with the bottle deposit, the vendor gets some reimbursement for a portion of their expense – this law is just a money grab. I, for one, am glad to see that so many retailers are choosing to find a work-around by choosing to stop plastic bags distribution entirely right now. We’ll see what happens when the state sees that the revenue coming in is lower than what they anticipated – be prepared for another tax on paper bags soon.

  2. With the two top grocery store chains announcing they will immediately terminate using plastic bags and substitute paper bags which are not subject to the tax it is likely many other stores will follow suit. It avoids the confusion cited in this article, eliminates the need to report, collect and remit the tax to the CT DRS and it allows merchants to charge for something they’ve been giving away by substituting paper bags for the plastic bags. This means the tax revenues ($54.5 million over the biennium) are likely to fall far short of the budgeted amounts creating another gap in Connecticut’s dubiously “balanced” budget. The stores also can score a public relations coup by saying they are environmental champions.

    1. Would someone please revisit this in 2021 with a tally of how much revenue this actually generated for the State’s coffers?
      My bet is that it’ll be far less than the $54.5M touted.

  3. This plastic bag ban is absurd. Need evidence?

    “BANNING PLASTIC BAGS IS GREAT FOR THE WORLD, RIGHT? NOT SO FAST”
    https://www.wired.com/2016/06/banning-plastic-bags-great-world-right-not-fast/

    ““Cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags—and, the Denmark researchers write, organic cotton is worse than conventional cotton when it comes to overall environmental impact.”
    https://qz.com/1585027/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-cotton-totes-might-be-worse-than-plastic/

    “Kroger’s Feel-Good Ban On Plastic Bags Is Worse Than Pointless”
    “What did the Danish study find? Those terrible, awful, lightweight disposable bags that Kroger plans to ban had the lowest environmental impact than any of nearly a dozen reusable alternatives it studied. In some cases, the disparity is huge.”
    “Then, of course, there’s the fact that plastic bags are incredibly cheap, whereas consumers have to buy the reusable ones. Banning plastic bags, then, is effectively a tax on middle-income families.”
    https://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/krogers-plastic-bags-ban-environment/

    A Connecticut resident goes to a retailer to spend money and purchase goods. Part of that experience should include the ability to carry such goods out of the store.

    This “Bring Your Own Bag” (or pay a “bag fee”) law is simply a State of Connecticut tax-grab disguised as a fake “environmental feel-good-save-the-planet” hoax.

    1. Hi John, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  4. Just ordered my first Amazon Prime Pantry. Skip the CT stores completely. For fresh stuff I can pop over to Rhode Island where I can still choose paper or plastic. It’s still a “pro-choice” State for the moment. Funny how states brag about choice for some things and then remove that choice for others. ( for your own good, of course. Progressive politics is based on having the elites make decisions for us. )

  5. I am going to buy a bulk box, 1,000 count for under $20 and bring in my own plastic bags. This way I know I will have enough in my car without taking up so much space with the empty bulky reusable bags. Plus how many reusable bags do I need to constantly carry around?

    1. you’re missing the point of the plastic ban then. it aint that much space, and we shop for a family of 6. just how much bags do you need that takes soooo much more space than 1000 plastic bags.

  6. What no one cares about is the impact this ban has on the elderly. I am over 60 myself and so far the ban has meant a lot more work for me. I will not be likely to shop as much or spend as much knowing the preparation I have to go through to take care of and bring my own bags. Plus at stores like Aldi, where you bring your own bags and bag your own groceries, at least you save a lot in return. With this, the cost to us is the same and more. The little older woman on a fixed income is the one that has the most hardship here. But no one cares about us. The politicians don’t shop and think everything is so simple. Plus all they care about is votes and how they can look like they’re so concerned about the environment. Meanwhile no one has really thought of a decent alternative. Saying “this will evolve” is ridiculous. What I am seeing going on at the checkout line already since Aug. 1 shows me that neither the politicians, nor the stores, nor the checkout people, nor the consumers have a decent strategy for making this anything but a nightmare, especially for older people. And judging from how smart or realistic most of these people are, I doubt it will get better any time soon.

    1. its only been a few days. people are still trying to figure out how they can work with it. And I think that’s ok. I don’t see any issue with making just a little bit more work, even with the elderly. They would still have to carry the bags and items out. The only difference is they’ll have to carry the bags in too. Its a little harder to everyone who has gotten used to the habit of going home with the plastic and forgetting about it. And that’s ok. Change is ok. I don’t see anyone dying because of this. If something like that happen, then change it again.

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