Durham leaders considering tax on single-use paper or plastic bags in city and county

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — City and county leaders in Durham are considering a proposal that would charge customers 10 cents for single-use paper or plastic bags.

Bag fees would apply to customers at any store or point-of-sale in Durham. Exceptions would be made for people on WIC, SNAP, Medicaid and other government assistance. Fees would be collected by the city and county solid waste management departments for consumer education on plastic waste.

The Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic and a non-profit called ‘Don’t Waste Durham’ worked together to create the proposal to motivate people to bring reusable bags and ultimately reduce waste.

Their research found that the city of Durham spends nearly $87,000 a year on removing plastics from the streets, storm drains and trees.

“The toxins from these plastic debris break down and are released into waterways, including our drinking water supply,” said Michelle Nowlin, of the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic. “The microfibers and micro plastics become airborne and so there’s a human health burden here that we’re just starting to understand and reckon with and so I think it’s really important as we become more aware of the ubiquity of plastic pollution in our environment to take those measures.”

Andy Ellen, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, told CBS 17 he opposes the idea for multiple reasons.

“We think it is an ill-guided effort to tax the consumers of Durham,” Ellen said of adding a fee for single-use bags. “We think it’s much better to do consumer education.”

Most of Durham’s trash is trucked 96 miles away to one of the state’s largest landfills located near a predominately Black community in Sampson County. According to research in the proposal, at least 17 percent of the trash Durham sends there is plastic.

Nowlin said the issue isn’t just environmental, it’s about equity and quality of life.

“When trucks are carrying waste to the landfill for disposal, sometimes you have accidental releases from material from those trucks, a lot of that is plastic litter because those bags are aerodynamic,” she said.

Nowlin added, “You also have blow off at the landfill itself from the disposal and trucks are emptying the waste into the landfill and so those communities have to work a little bit harder to remove the trash that’s generated from the disposal itself.

A survey of 60 Durham businesses found that 85 percent either support the bag fee or are indifferent to it. Ellen said he hears a different response from businesses and believes the bag fee will end up hurting their bottom line.

“Every time they do a $0.10 charge, the retailer is going to be paying part of that, not only to the credit card company, but by collecting and remitting that to the city of Durham and county for free,” he said.

Other states have adopted similar bag fees, but there’s concern that it could lead to legal issues in North Carolina.

“The proponents of this point to cities and other states like California, Virginia and other places. Those are home-rule states, which means they have the authority to do this,” said Ellen. “In North Carolina, the city and county of Durham has no statutory authority to do this because we’re not a home-rule state. We’re what’s called a Dillon rule state and all authority must come from the General Assembly.”

Attorneys for the city and county are working to figure out if a bag fee is legal. Once they do, they’ll make a recommendation on whether or not to move forward.

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