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Who to exempt?

December 28, 2018

STAMFORD - The year-old debate over banning plastic bags has included nearly every scenario for what life would be like without them.

City lawmakers deliberated whether the ban should include dry-cleaning bags; whether farmers’ markets should be included along with supermarkets; whether restaurant carry-out should be exempt; whether the city should define what constitutes a “reusable” bag; and whether the city should provide free reusable bags to residents.

The biggest discussion has been whether Stamford should not only ban plastic but also require that stores charge for paper bags.

Those arguments were resolved in a law that passed in October. Come May 3, Stamford residents must bring their own tote bags to any retail establishment, including supermarkets, food trucks, delis, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and drug, liquor, home-improvement and department stores.

Anyone without a tote bag will be charged 10 cents for each paper bag they need to carry their purchases home.

But, after all that, an eleventh-hour question has emerged: Should some groups be exempt from the paper-bag charge?

It likely will be the subject of a public hearing before the Board of Representatives’ Legislative & Rules Committee when it meets in January.

“We discussed everything but this,” said Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, a member of the committee and author of one of the bag-ban proposals.

The ordinance already exempts food-assistance recipients from the 10-cent charge for paper bags because representatives feared it could be a burden on the city’s low-income residents. After the ordinance passed, an amendment was added to expand the exemption to include recipients of Medicaid, Medicare and COBRA, a type of health-insurance coverage for people who lose their jobs.

Members of the Legislative & Rules Committee discussed the amendment at their December meeting, voting to recommend to the full board that Medicare and COBRA recipients not be exempted.

Both committee votes were unanimous. During the meeting, members said COBRA is not a government-assistance program, and people on Medicare can bring tote bags to stores to avoid the paper-bag fee.

“Most people on Medicare are capable of carrying their weight by remembering to bring a reusable bag,” Rep. Susan Nabel, D-20, said during the meeting.

Approving an exemption for Medicare recipients would “cut the incentive for people to use a reusable bag of their own,” said Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, during the meeting. “The more carve-outs we have, the less effective this is going to be.”

The vote to exempt recipients of Medicaid, a program for low-income seniors and disabled persons, also failed, 4-2. Most people in that program also receive food stamps and are already exempt from the paper-bag charge, committee members said.

Lion pointed to a statistic showing that 30,000 of Stamford’s 130,000 residents - 23 percent - receive Medicaid benefits.

The full Board of Representatives will take up the matter when it meets at 8 p.m. Jan. 7. Another amendment passed by the committee limits the paper-bag charge exemption to recipients of food-assistance programs, not all government programs.

“We felt it needed to be buttoned up,” Jacobson said Wednesday. “Otherwise it would exempt people on Social Security, people who receive federally backed student loans and all kinds of programs.”

The full board likely will support holding a public hearing before deciding on any amendments, Jacobson said.

“I think the board will vote to open this to a hearing and invite the public to speak as to which government-assistance program, if any, should be exempt from the 10-cent charge,” Jacobson said.

The public hearing would be held during the Legislative & Rules Committee’s January meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

Environmentalists estimate that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used globally each year. About 380 billion are used in the United States, where 90 percent are not recycled. They are made of petroleum and don’t easily break down in landfills or oceans, choking wildlife and releasing poisonous chemicals into the land and water.

During the December committee meeting, the chairman, Rep. Benjamin Lee, D-15, said the goal of the plastic-bag ban is to “nudge” residents toward conservation.

“We designed a system that does not charge people money,” Lee said. “It sets them on a path.”

In voting for the 10-cent charge, lawmakers cited studies that show the most effective way to get consumers to switch to reusable tote bags is to combine a plastics ban with a charge for paper.

The ban does not apply to plastic bags used to contain fruit, vegetables, nuts, meat, fish, unwrapped prepared foods, bakery goods, flowers, plants, small hardware items, delivered newspapers and dry-cleaning bags.

Whatever happens in January, residents should prepare for change, Jacobson said.

“The idea is that bringing your own bag should become as second-nature as buckling the seat belt of your car,” he said.

A grassroots group that supports plastic-bag bans and has chapters in a number of Connecticut towns wrote to the board urging representatives to exempt only food-assistance recipients from the paper-bag charge, since that “already covers those that are most vulnerable.”

According to the letter from BYO Stamford, if the exemption were to be expanded, it would encourage more use of paper bags. The group recommends that the city set up bins at government buildings where people could donate tote bags to be picked up by people who need them.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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