Tuesday January 18, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- A nationwide consumer protection agency is criticizing a Vermont House bill that aims to ban retailers from providing consumers with plastic bags.

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) announced its opposition to the legislation last Friday, which seeks to prohibit retail establishments from providing plastic carry-out bags.

The proposed measure, House Bill No. 19 introduced by former Rep. Michael Obuchowski and current Rep. Carolyn Partridge, intends to reduce the harmful effects of noncompostable plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer recyclable or reusable bags for carryings goods from Vermont businesses.

The bill was first read on Jan. 11 and referred to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Other reincarnations of the measure have been sponsored in previous years.

Partridge, a Windham Democrat, said the students at Grafton Elementary School had conducted studies on the effect of plastic bags and asked her to introduce the bill in the Statehouse.

Both Partridge and Obuchowski (who stepped down to take a position in the Department of Buildings and General Services) represent Grafton in the Windham-4 district.

This is important for the students because they can learn how a bill becomes a law and it will raise awareness about the issue in Vermont, Partridge said. "I think if nothing else, it can start the conversation to alternatives to plastic bags. Whether it’s realistic or not to ban them, that remains to be seen."

But the Washington, D.C.-based consumer freedom center said such a ban will drive consumers in the Green Mountain State to purchase "cheap, fabric-like" polypropylene bags containing excessive levels of lead, and which breed bacteria.

Fifty-six percent of Americans are not "at all aware" that reusable grocery bags may contain lead and bacteria, according to a poll commissioned by the group through the Opinion Research Corporation. CCF also reported its survey found only two of five consumers reuse their bags "most" or "all" of the time.

"Attempting to demonize or ban plastic bags -- as Reps. Obuchowski and Partridge are proposing -- is a perfect example of knee-jerk, feel-good regulation that brings with it a myriad of unintended consequences," said J. Justin Wilson, a CCF senior research analyst, in a statement.

"Politicians often respond to activist-driven junk science by banning or taxing products without giving any thought to what people will use instead," he said. "Now recent research demonstrates that some of these bags contain lead and can be a breeding ground for bacteria. In the end, the new alternative can end up being worse than its replacement."

Since its establishment in 1996 with funding from the tobacco industry, CCF has promoted personal responsibility and protection of consumer choices.

"A growing cabal of activists has meddled in Americans’ lives in recent years," according to its website. "In reality, they’re eroding our basic freedoms -- the freedom to buy what we want, eat what we want, drink what we want and raise our children as we see fit."

The multi-million dollar nonprofit also operates multiple other online sites critical of animal rights, labor and other advocacy groups.

Partridge said she is not surprised national groups are coming into Vermont to lobby against the bill. Democrats are also anticipating anti-health care reform advocates in Montpelier as the state could begin discussions on moving toward a single-payer system.

In the legislation, lawmakers report discarded plastic bags contribute to overburdened landfills, threaten the health of the wildlife and degrade the environment with litter. If the legislation becomes law, it would likely go into effect by July 2012 with a potential $500 penalty for any violation.

Several European nations established a bag tax nearly 10 years ago, cutting the use of disposable bags in countries such as Ireland by up to 90 percent.

Since San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007, many others have followed suit without much success. The plastics industry has aggressively fought back against similar bans in Seattle, Oakland and other major cities.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.