Durham environment board endorses proposed 10-cent fee on plastic shopping bags

To cut down on bags that choke streams and gum up recycling equipment, an environmental group wants stores to charge shoppers in Durham 10 cents for every paper and plastic bag they get.

Crystal Dreisbach, head of Don’t Waste Durham, won support for a proposed ordinance for a 10-cent bag fee from the Durham Environmental Affairs Board last week.

The idea is that the fee will encourage people to use their own bags when they shop.

Under the proposal, shoppers who use food stamps or WIC benefits for their purchases wouldn’t have to pay the fee.

Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Environmental and Law Policy Clinic at Duke University, said a fee is “the most effective mechanism for changing consumer behavior.” The environmental law clinic supported Dreisbach’s request.

Increasingly, states are restricting the use of thin plastic shopping bags.

Connecticut shoppers started paying a 10-cent tax on plastic shopping bags this month, according to the Hartford Courant.

New York, Maine, and Vermont this year joined California and Hawaii in banning single-use plastic bags, according to National Geographic. Twenty-four municipalities in Maine have already passed their own plastic-bag bans, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Stores in California that sell reusable bags must charge at least 10 cents, according to a California government website. Stores in Maine may provide recyclable paper or reusable plastic bags for at least five cents, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Vermont stores can give shoppers paper bags for 10 cents, according to VTDigger.

Durham’s proposed bag fee has a long way to go to before shoppers would ever see a charge.

Local government staff would evaluate the proposal before it goes to city and county managers, Matt Kopac, chairman of the Environmental Affairs Board said in an email. Then the proposal would go through a series of work sessions and committees before coming before elected leaders for votes, he wrote.

And there’s disagreement on whether Durham can enact a fee without legislative authority.

The legislature has not looked kindly on shopping bag restrictions lately. Two years ago, the state legislature repealed a plastic-bag ban on the Outer Banks that legislators had passed in 2009.

While Dreisbach said Durham can adopt the ordinance without asking for legislative approval, Andy Ellen, president of the NC Retail Merchants Association and one of its lobbyists said in an interview that Durham cannot decide on its own to charge a fee for shopping bags.

“They would certainly not have the authority to do a ban or certainly a fee,” Ellen said. “That would certainly have to come from the General Assembly.”

Having a bag fee in one county would result in a “Balkanization of the state,” he said.

Nowlin said Durham has the authority to act.

Municipalities have broad authority to protect the “health, safety and welfare” of their citizens, and another state law gives them “wide latitude” to manage solid waste, she said.

Plastic bags have financial and environmental costs, she said, and the bag fee “reflects the cost to the community.”

The Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic has inventoried trash fished out of Durham streams that counts “plastic film” — plastic bags, candy wrappers, snack bags and pieces of plastic -- more than other kinds of garbage.

Kopac said he was confident Durham can require the fees if elected officials choose.

“While in the law it is hard to have a sure thing, we have confidence that the proposed ordinance is likely to pass muster under current law,” he wrote.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at or (919) 829-4821.