With Delaware plastic bag ban coming soon, state struggles to enforce existing plastic rules

The News Journal | by Sarah Gamard

Wawa, the beloved convenience chain that ranks among the top grocery store locations in the First State, will be giving up plastic shopping bags in Delaware come 2021.

But it’s unclear what other stores will and won’t keep plastic bags when Delaware becomes the next state to ban the single-use bags at major supermarkets and retail stores.

That’s because the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is struggling to enforce the requirements of the state’s current plastic bag recycling laws, which went into effect 10 years ago.

Then a 2017 law required DNREC to set up a self registry for stores to identify themselves as being among the ones big enough to recycle bags, based on how big the stores were and how numerous. Many of those recycling bags will have to stop using them, under the 2019 law to ban the bags. Not every store complied.

“There were some people who … may have determined that what they defined as retail space was much smaller than what we would consider retail space,” DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said. “That’s really, I think, one of the biggest issues that we need to make sure that we address.”

DNREC will do more compliance checks moving toward 2021, Garvin said.

The state will need to set clearer guidelines for which stores have to ban the bags, too, he said.

“There will be more rigor as we move towards 2021,” Garvin said.

But some leaders wonder how the department will be able to enforce a statewide plastic bag ban, which lawmakers and advocates hope will position Delaware as a leader in reducing plastic use and waste.

“I’m a little taken back that DNREC didn’t come back to us and tell us they were having issues,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear. “There’s a strong message that Delaware wants to be an environmentally friendly state. It’s up to DNREC to make that happen.”

Others are less surprised.

“Their lack of enthusiasm to enforce their responsibilities has been a disappointment for 10 years,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, a co-sponsor of the bill to ban plastic bags. “They’re not organized enough to use the resources they do have to enforce the laws we pass.”

Some of the stores expected to lose bags

Wawa confirmed to The News Journal that it expects to stop using plastic bags in 2021.

“The bill would impact any non-reusable bags we have, but we do offer customers an option to purchase a reusable bag or a more affordable 2.25ml reusable bag,” said Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce.

The state cannot confirm which other stores will ban plastic bags, Garvin said.

Shoppers can expect ShopRite and Acme, which surpass Wawa as New Castle County grocery store favorites, to stop using plastic, based on the size of their stores.

Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, Food Lion, Macy’s and Home Depot are also among those that probably won’t be allowed to use plastic bags anymore, based on their sizes and numbers of locations.

The same goes for Big Lots, Five Below, Famous Footwear, Nordstrom and Party City, based the law’s requirements.

The stores that will be part of the ban must have a certain size and number of locations to qualify. If they’re a small enough business, the bag ban doesn’t apply to them.

Restaurants also won’t ban the bags, and not all kinds of plastic bags will be banned.

What are stores supposed to be doing now?

The plastic bag recycling program and the ban are part of the Democrat-controlled administration’s efforts to curb waste. It’s one of the few issues on which Gov. John Carney was outspoken about this year.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the administration is confident they can enforce new and existing environmental laws.

But some environmental advocates in the state say the 2009 law was a failure.

The plastic bag recycling rules required certain larger stores to print a reminder on the bag itself to recycle it, provide a bin in the store where the bags can be left, and making reusable bags available to customers.

Even if a store is doing their best effort to recycle their bags, few are brought back to be recycled, said Laura Miller with the Delaware Nature Society.

Many shoppers either didn’t know about it or didn’t care to participate in the program, said Dee Durham, co-founder of the pro-bag ban group Plastic Free Delaware.

“There’s just some people that don’t buy into doing things for the environment,” Durham said. “There’s still confusion about it.”

Why doesn’t the state know?

The 2017 law that required DNREC to register qualifying store would have presumably given officials a list of which stores would have to stop issuing plastic bags in 2021.

But stores could decide for themselves whether the law applied to them.

The survey did not require businesses to report how big their stores were, despite that being a defining criterion for whether a store qualified.

Some lawmakers now think the state will need to double down on making sure businesses are environmentally friendly.

Longhurst, who in 2017 pushed for those stores to register with DNREC, said she never received the list of registered stores after sponsoring legislation that required it.

She pointed out that state officials have been talking about banning plastic shopping bags for the past decade.

“You think they would understand this is a priority,” she said.

Some major businesses seem to have been missed altogether. A Wawa spokeswoman, for example, told The News Journal that they weren’t aware of the registry.

She said each store has been following the recycling law “regardless of the size requirement.”

‘There will be more rigor’

Right now, companies that fail to comply with the registry could result in up to $2,000 in fines.

DNREC hopes to educate residents and businesses on which stores will be banning the bags come 2021.

Some environmental advocates think education is the best method to alert shoppers and businesses, despite the hefty penalties on the books.

“You don’t want to see consequences, you want to see incentives,” said Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, one of the sponsors of the plastic bag ban. “If we do a good job, the enforcement part of this won’t be a big burden on the department.”

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Durham with Plastic Free Delaware said it’s often up to the public to make sure people are following environmental laws.

“Even if it’s 90 percent compliant, it’s going to make a big difference,” she said.

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