Vermont has joined the growing list of states swearing off single-use plastics by adopting the nation’s broadest restrictions yet on shopping bags, straws, drink stirrers, and foam food packaging.
The new law, which takes effect in July 2020, prohibits retailers and restaurants from providing customers with single-use carryout bags, plastic stirrers, or cups, takeout, or other food containers made from expanded polystyrene. Straws may be provided to customers on request. People requiring straws for medical conditions are exempted from the law.
The bag ban applies only to bags at point-of-sale and not to bags sold as household trash bags or bags used in grocery stores to contain loose produce.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law without comment Monday. Earlier he had expressed doubts about the new ten-cent-per-bag charge retailers and restaurants are required to collect for paper bags. Small paper bags are exempted from the ten-cent charge.
“Throughout the session, he did say that given the overwhelming bipartisan support in the legislature and having not heard opposition from the retailers who will be impacted, he expected to sign it,” says Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director.
Multiple states have banned one or more of these plastics. But Vermont is the first to ban all four products in a single bill.
“Vermont has now established a national precedent of tackling three of the worst examples of plastic packaging in one sweeping state law,” says Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who heads a plastics pollution initiative at Bennington College, in a statement.
Not all bags created equal
Hawaii, California, Maine, and New York have banned disposable plastic bags. Supporters of Vermont’s bill say lawmakers took extra steps to promote bag reuse and discourage bag makers from skirting bag bans by making them thicker. As a result, the Vermont ban outlaws plastic carryout bags that do not have stitched handles.
Jen Duggan, director of the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation, says cities and counties that have passed bag bans often defined prohibited bags by their thickness or applied measurements requiring that it carry a certain weight a certain distance.
“What happened was the bag makers flooded the markets with thicker bags,” she says.
The requirement for stitched handles, she says, was simply an easier solution. Because of the cost of stitching handles, it effectively ensures that carryout bags will be made from cloth or reusable polypropylene, encouraging reuse‒one of the goals of the law.
Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry lobbying group, in an interview in April cautioned that bag bans result in the importation of thicker bags manufactured in China. He added that plastic retail bags in the United States are regulated by more ordinances than any other plastic product, and suggested a better solution for sustainability is for bags to be returned by customers to retailers, where they can be sent back to the factory and remade into new bags.
Vermont’s action builds on a growing movement across the world to ban single-use plastics. Plastic bags have been taxed or banned in 127 nations, according to a United Nations count. The European Union banned the top plastic items found on European beaches earlier this spring.
Earlier this year, Vermont’s most famous business, Ben and Jerry’s, announced plans to eliminate the use of plastic straws and other single-use plastics in its 600 ice cream shops worldwide.