Washington — June may become known as plastic bag ban season this year, with governors of two states — Vermont and Maine — officially signing them into law and legislatures in Connecticut and Oregon passing them and sending to their respective governors.
If all become law — and with New York state adopting its bag ban in late March — it would mean the number of states with bans will have gone from two at the start of the year to seven.
Plastic bag makers note that even with the new bans, a majority of the United States remains without such restrictions. But the state legislative action clearly makes this the most active year yet for plastic retail bag bans.
Both Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed their state's legislation June 17.
Environmental groups said Vermont's law is the strictest so far, since it also bans expanded polystyrene foodservice containers and plastic straws in restaurants, although it provides medical and disability exemptions for straws.
For its part, Connecticut's Legislature June 3 included a hybrid bag ban and fee in a budget bill that it adopted. Advocates say it's expected to become law, as Gov. Ned Lamont had included a bag fee in his budget proposal earlier this year.
On the West Coast, Oregon's state Senate June 11 passed a bag ban, following action in the House. The bill now goes to Gov. Kate Brown.
Advocates for bans said that in each state many cities had already passed local ordinances restricting bags and that paved the way for state laws.
They pointed to bags as a source of litter on streets and waterways and said they clog up machinery at local recycling plants, leading to costly disruptions.
In supporting Oregon's law, the California-based Surfrider Foundation said less than 8 percent of plastic bags are recycled.
Ban supporters said they wanted to support reusable bags and framed the laws as part of broader efforts to cut back on single-use packaging.
"This is an important step for protecting our environment while encouraging an Oregon ethos for shopping with reusable bags," said Charlie Plybon, Oregon policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation.
The plastics industry argued that the laws miss the mark on environmental protection. They said plastic bags have a lighter environmental footprint and are cheaper than alternatives.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance said California's 2016 bag ban had the unintended consequence of boosting purchases of regular garbage bags, as people could no longer reuse retail bags.
"Lawmakers who passed a ban or tax on grocery bags decided that a quick political win was most important this session," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the Washington-based APBA. "This is unfortunate for consumers who will face higher grocery costs and the small-business owners who will face more regulations."
APBA pointed to studies from Denmark and Quebec that said paper bags have 4-28 times the environmental impact of plastic bags and that reusable bags such as those made from polypropylene need to be used between 16-98 times and cotton more than 100 times to equal the impact of a thin plastic retail bag.
The American Chemistry Council said it supports reducing waste and litter but questioned whether Vermont's law will do that.
"Banning of certain types of foodservice packaging and bags does not reduce litter but merely changes what is found in the waste stream," said Adam Peer, senior director of packaging for ACC's plastics division. "Comprehensive legislation that increases curbside recycling, advances new technologies, and helps educate the public on littering and recycling is the best course of action to tackle the nation's and state's litter problem."
The laws are structured slightly differently in each of the four states, but all of them ban plastic bags and either allow or require a 5- or 10-cent fee for paper bags.
Connecticut's legislation is more of a hybrid. It sets a 10-cent fee on plastic bags for two years and then in 2021 will ban them. It allows cities to adopt their own paper bag fees or bans but takes no action at the state level.
Amanda Schoen, deputy director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, said the plastic bag fee was a compromise to generate some revenue for the state to help with a difficult budget as well as to phase in a ban for consumers.
"We feel strongly that these plastic bags are huge environmental contaminants," she said. "They get into our waterways. They are a major litter problem in our streets."
Schoen said paper bags were also a point of contention in the debate, with the League supporting fees on paper.
"Their manufacture can often be even more of a drain on the environment than making plastic bags and they are more expensive to produce," she said. "We don't want people transitioning from one disposable product to another."
She said Connecticut's law gained traction following gains by Democratic and more pro-environment legislators in the November elections, a point other followers of bag legislation have echoed nationwide. Before this year, only California and Hawaii, with all of its counties adopting separate laws, had statewide bans.
Ban advocates in both Oregon and Maine noted that an increasing number of cities adopting local bag ordinances helped convince grocers and retailers to support statewide laws.
One of the sponsors of Maine's law, State Rep. Holly Stover, tied the legislation into protecting tourism.
"Today we took an important step towards protecting the wildlife and landscapes that support Maine's economy," she said in a statement marking Gov. Mills signing the law.
And in Oregon, a statement from the Surfrider Foundation said the Association of Oregon Recyclers supported the plastic bag ban because bags cause operational and contamination problems at recycling centers.
"Plastic bags placed in home and business recycling bins get tangled in the equipment used to sort and process materials," said AOR Chair Ali Briggs-Ungerer. "This poses hazards to workers and costly disruptions at recycling facilities when equipment has to be turned off to remove bags."
APBA's Seaholm said it's too soon to predict the economic impact of the new bans but suggested they are causing concern.
"We won't know the full impact until the new laws take effect in the coming years, but there is no doubt they are causing anxiety for the tens of thousands of American workers who manufacture these products," Seaholm said.