‘Anything to save the environment.’ Delaware’s revised plastic bag ban takes effect July 1

Big stores exploited a loophole in a law that took effect in January 2021 and gave away thicker plastic bags that many customers have stockpiled.

Bob Hayman has accumulated lots of thick reusable plastic bags that stores provided after they exploited a legal loophole. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Bob Hayman has accumulated lots of thick reusable plastic bags that stores provided after they exploited a legal loophole. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

When Bob Hayman goes to the Giant grocery store near his house north of Wilmington, he takes in a couple of large reusable plastic bags to haul out his food and other items.

Hayman, a retired law professor, has compiled quite a collection of the thick white bags over nearly 18 months.

That’s because larger stores exploited a loophole in a law, which took effect in January 2021,  that banned the thin single-use plastic bags Delaware stores have used for years.

Instead of ending the practice of providing all carryout bags to customers, stores such as Target, Acme, and Total Wine simply started giving out larger, thicker plastic bags, free of charge. Those bigger bags were permitted as long as they were 2.25 millimeters thick and designed to be used at least 125 times.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Many stores exploited a loophole in the law that took effect in January 2021 by providing even larger plastic bags. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

But by doing so, the stores effectively subverted the intent of the law, which aimed to reduce plastic pollution in landfills and waterways. State environmental officials said that before the law went into effect, the average Delawarean was using about 434 plastic bags per person a year, contributing to the 2,400 tons of plastic that end up in Delaware landfills annually.

But starting on July 1, stores will no longer be able to give out the thicker plastic bags.

A new law that passed last year bans those heftier plastic bags and mandates that merchants can only offer paper carryout bags or reusable ones with switched handles that can contain some plastic materials.

Stores don’t have to provide bags at all but if they do they can give them away or charge a fee to customers.

Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, says the new law closes the unintended loophole.

“By realigning the legislation to further limit the use of film carryout bags,” Garvin said, “we are reducing waste that all too often ends up along our roadways, in our waterways, and along our shorelines – all detrimental to our environment including harmful effects on our wildlife and marine creatures.”

Hayman agrees with environmentalists and regulators that plastic bags that end up in landfills or waterways “are real environmental hazards.’’

But since he has a bunch of multi-use plastic bags, “we’ll keep using them until they wear out. They’re basically reusable at this point. We just keep using them over and over.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

‘I get the point. It’s probably good for the environment’

Nevertheless, Hayman and other shoppers outside the Giant in Concord Square Shopping Center are eager for the new law to take effect.

Justine Tumas and Robin Richman even have their own reusable, canvas-type bags with handles – the kind stores will still be allowed to distribute.

“We have to do what we can to preserve the environment,’’ said Tumas, a retired accounting manager.

Justine Tumas (foreground) has a reusable bag at home but like Robin Richman (background, pushing cart) sometimes forgets to bring it with her to the store. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

If only they can remember to put them in the car, or take them into the store, that is.

“What I have been doing is leaving them by the front door, but I’m still not grabbing them,” Tumas said after emerging from Giant with groceries in two paper bags with handles that the store provided for free.

“So probably what I have to do is empty them and then just bring them immediately to the car.”

Richman, a real estate agent, keeps her reusable bag in her SUV’s cargo bay, but forgot to take it inside that day. Like Tumas, she left the store with two paper bags.

“Anything to save the environment. But I always forget to bring them in,” Richman said with a chuckle.

Dr. Yoon Chay carried in his own big reusable container into Giant, but thinks compliance should be voluntary because stores will just pass costs onto shoppers.

Yoon Chay predicts stores will pass on compliance costs to customers. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“I don’t know if I’m a big fan of being forced to use reusable bags,’’ he said. “But I see the point. It’s probably good for the environment.’’

The new law pertains to all stores except restaurants. Grocery stores can still provide carryout bags to wrap items such as meat or fish, or to contain loose items such as nuts, ground coffee, and candy. But those stores must also have an on-site recycling program for consumers who want to return those bags.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal