Virus Prompts States to Put Plastic Bag Bans on Hold

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the many bills that fell by the wayside when the General Assembly adjourned three weeks early was a measure to ban single-use plastic bags in Maryland.

The bill passed the House largely along party lines — 95-37 — four days before the legislature went home last week due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The bill was voted out of the Senate Finance Committee, 8-3, but time ran out before it hit the Senate floor.

Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, single-use plastic bags are coming back into fashion — at least temporarily.

As part of a new order governing public health at grocery stores and pharmacies, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said Wednesday that he’s lifting state and local bans on plastic bags and is prohibiting shoppers from carrying out groceries in reusable bags.

“From now on reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans will be lifted,” Baker said, according to CBS Boston. “Stores are not allowed to charge for paper and plastic bags at this time.”

Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh delivered a similar edict.

At least two other states have made similar moves in recent days.

E&E News reported Wednesday that Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced that enforcement of the state’s new law banning plastic bag use, due to go into effect on April 22, would be delayed until next Jan. 15.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation last week said it would delay enforcement of the ban, which went into effect at the beginning of this month, until at least May 15. Additionally, the state is being sued by business owners seeking to further delay or overturn the plastic bag ban.

Single-use plastic bags are seen as a major polluter worldwide, and eight states have adopted laws banning them.

But with COVID-19 spreading like wildfire, the plastics industry and some public health experts argue that plastic bags are more sanitary and less likely to transmit disease than reusable bags.

“With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recently tweeted. The Granite State does not have a bag ban.

Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, told E&E News in a statement that plastic bags are a way to avoid “whatever is lurking on reusable bags.”

“Single-use plastics can literally be the difference between life and death,” Radoszewski said.

“Items such as IV bags and ventilator machines, which are of the utmost importance right now, have components made of single-use plastics. The single-use hospital gowns, gloves and masks that protect our health care workers every day are also made of plastic.”

In Maryland, when the House Environment and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the proposed plastic bag ban last month, a leading business organization came out in support of the legislation, arguing that statewide rules were preferable to a patchwork of local laws prohibiting the use of plastic bags.

At least six Maryland jurisdictions have laws that either prohibit the sale of plastic bags or charge a fee for them.

“This bill will pre-empt six different localities that have fees or bans that have become too burdensome for multijurisdictional operators to keep up with,” Maryland Retailers Association President Cailey Locklair told lawmakers at last month’s hearing.

Judith Enck, a high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official during the Obama administration and founder of the group Beyond Plastics, told E&E News that consumers should wash their reusable bags.

“If you wash reusable bags, which during this time makes a lot of sense, you’re bringing your own bag from your own home to the store as opposed to putting your food in plastic bags that have traveled the world,” she said.

Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), the chief sponsor of the bag legislation that passed in the House this year, said she intends to reintroduce the measure next year.

Enck suggested that the setbacks for the campaign to ban plastic bags, propelled by COVID-19, are merely temporary.

“I would be worried if laws were getting repealed as opposed to delayed,” she said.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.