While we argued, legislators trashed the plastic bag ban

By on June 27, 2017

By the time you read this, there’s a good chance the 2010 legislation banning the retail use of plastic bags will have been repealed.

If so, the law will disappear with about the same level of public engagement as it generated when signed into law.

When Sen. Marc Basnight introduced the legislation, it wasn’t a burning issue in the county and there was no significant demand for banning the much-maligned shopping bags.


In fact, there was some surprise when the bill passed and was signed into law, especially among local merchants and people, like myself, who felt the legislation would accomplish very little, especially since the “state” law applied only to the coastal sections of Dare and Currituck counties.

In mainland Dare and Currituck, as well as Roanoke Island and the rest of coastal North Carolina, plastic bags continued to fly out of retail store lines as well as boats, cars, trucks and beachgoers’ belongings.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2017 repeal.

A significant number of Dare residents came to like and even embrace the law. And I’ll be a little saddened to see the ban lifted and the plastic bags returning to our shores.

But what saddened me more was the form and content of the discussions that took place on social media, including our own website and Facebook page.


What surprised me the most was the lack of a full-throated opposition to take this issue by the horns and prove to the legislators in Raleigh, and more important, the larger chain stores who are most certainly behind the repeal, that this legislation was bad for business.

What happened was something quite different, but almost predictable in the New America, where knees jerk and fingers always point in a partisan direction.

Facebook was, once again, the most egregious example of uninformed punditry marked more by hurling partisan insults at one another than any nuanced discussion on the underlying issues.


The anti-repeal crowd immediately went after Republicans in general (the party where every single member apparently hates the environment) and our two Dare County General Assembly members, Sen. Bill Cook and Rep. Beverly Boswell.

Judging from the comments, Cook and Boswell were apparently lining their pockets with tons of big-box store money and if they had their way, they would have replaced Jennette’s Pier with a coal-fired power plant just to put an exclamation point on their environmental policies.

The insults from the pro-repeal crowd were no better.

One local Republican had a field day on our wall calling anyone who opposed the repeal an “environmental kook” while others hurled the “s” (socialist) and “l” (liberal) words as if those terms shed any light on a more sophisticated reason to oppose the ban.

Our local representatives didn’t help matters much.

Rep. Boswell avoided the media and took to making her own video to explain her introduction of the repeal legislation in the House, a move that probably reached less than 1 percent of the local voters.

Sen. Cook originally tacked his version of the legislation onto a Senate bill that covered myriad regulatory issues, making it initially difficult to spot his participation.

All of which is much ado about nothing because the Republicans acted exactly like Republicans “should,” in the ideological sense of the word.

While I can easily reject GOP claims the ban resulted in job losses, significantly reduced profits, or posed an undue regulatory on local businesses, as a rule, Republicans would oppose such things based on nothing more than “small government/free market” arguments.

All of the rhetoric trying to paint Republicans as the culprits here was misplaced.

Nor was their support for the bill even a remote threat to their respective re-election chances in their respective districts.

Those who wished to reduce the basis for the GOP supporting the repeal as yet another example of the science-hating, knuckle-dragging, kill-the-environment virus that affects everyone with a “R” after their name on voter registration rolls was equally ineffective.

So where should the opponents of the repeal have directed their energies?

The answer was the same as it was in the fight over offshore drilling.

In that battle, it wasn’t Republican versus Democrat, especially since it was a Democratic president who signed the order opening our ocean waters to exploration and drilling.

The community united against the oil and gas industries and countered their claims of local economic benefits from drilling as well as countering their “patriotic” claim that Atlantic drilling would enhance the nation’s energy independence.

So ask yourself: Who benefits from repealing the ban, if it really wasn’t harming locally owned stores?

Which businesses were experiencing significant (even if not “harmful” to the bottom line) costs complying with the ban?

Who would be afraid of the legislature extending the ban to other areas of the state, including inland areas?

The answer to that is simple: big box stores.

It’s so simple, the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association not only eagerly told the Voice they have been pushing for repeal since 2010, they sent us an editorial explaining their position and why, in their eyes, the ban was bad legislation.

The RMA told us their members were pushing for repeal, and when we asked if that included big box stores, we were told yes, although they would not name specific stores, large or small, asking for the repeal.

When the Voice called three major chains that are nationally headquartered in North Carolina (Lowe’s, Food Lion, and Harris-Teeter) and reported they dodged our calls and e-mails and refused to comment on the bag repeal, there was still a deafening silence from repeal opponents.

While a ban that covers just a portion of two counties might seem insignificant to many readers, businesses often take to heart the old saw that “if you let the camel put his nose in the tent, pretty soon he’s sleeping with you.”

But big box stores have a weakness that sometimes can be exploited.

Myriad groups oppose big box stores in almost every community where they choose to operate: labor unions, local mom and pop store owners, advocates for living wages, health-care proponents, protectionists who see the chains as purveyors of cheap imported goods that cost American jobs.

While I don’t subscribe to most of these positions, many Americans do, and big box stores go out of their way to avoid bad publicity. They love to cast themselves as good corporate citizens who respect local causes and concerns.

That is where the energies should have been directed if opponents really wanted to keep plastic bags from being distributed in coastal Dare and Currituck.

In fact, if you are one who somehow thinks that politicians are owned by interest groups, then the only logical target was to try to force these stores to “do the right thing” locally.

That didn’t happen.

For reasons I can’t explain, I supported the ban even though it stands in opposition to many of my core political beliefs.

But I made my opposition known to the local managers of the stores I frequent, and in calls separate from my role as a journalist, I registered complaints with all three company headquarters.

Perhaps opposition to plastic bags doesn’t evoke the same fears of catastrophe as offshore drilling, lacking the type of images and economic damage we experienced in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But there is a lesson here, and it’s that while we live in an incredibly irritating hyper-partisan world, not everything is a deep-seated “D” or “R” concern. Sometimes, it might do some good to get off that train and look at the scenery from a different perspective.



  • Tim Sweeney

    I sent my concerns to Senator Cook and he responded in an e mail for me to show him the evidence and data where it was making s significant difference for the environment. It was obvious his mind was made up in supporting the repeal of the plastic bag ban.
    I believe the Chamber of Commerce sent out a notice to keep the law in tact! Confused Dare citizen!

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 8:30 pm
  • Robert Palombo

    Keep bringing your own bags to stores and reject plastic YOU can make a difference by your actions. You could also collect plastic bags found flying around the roadways and on roadsides and mail them to Boswell and Cook.

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 8:31 pm
  • C nash

    Right on! Excellent commentary! like too many things everybody likes to bitch on social media but not carry it any farther

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 8:52 pm
  • charlie

    Robert has a good idea but let’s go one step further… Gather up all the filthy, sand laden yucky plastic bags and send them to the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association.

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 8:54 pm
  • Toad Licker

    If you think lobbyists didn’t cause this repeal your head’s really deep in the sand, so it is a political issue. I reached out to both Food Lion and Harris Teeet urging them to only stock paper bags at checkout and I bet many more residents did too, so your assumption that nobody did this is particularly annoying. We can still vote with our shopping dollars when this is all said and done.

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 9:45 pm
  • Deb

    I wonder if we can get the stores to change if we all started bombarding them with text, emails and phone calls. There are a lot of property owners and quiet a few that have some political connections. You used to could download property owners email address. If someone has a program they could send out a bulk email. I’m sure the rich and famous don’t want that crap in there landscaping any more than we do! It’s the rich guys that can help us win!

    Tuesday, Jun 27 @ 9:52 pm
  • Rick Shaftan

    This is awesome!

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 12:14 am
  • Really?

    Thank you Sen. Cook and Rep. Boswell for helping remove a burdensome law for a problem that didn’t even exist.

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 12:18 am
  • Barbara Stovall

    I visit Outer Banks every year for 5 week’s, I liked not using plastic bags. I can’t stand seeing them flying around the roadways either. I feel bad that the band on them has been changed. I bet you will see an increase on shore with plastic being left with garbage in them. Very sad. I live in Florida, and I am still looked at when I bring my cloth reused bags to grocery and dollar stores.

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 6:08 am
  • Barb Scharf

    Sad. We’ll be asking for paper bags and I’ll hold up the line as long as it takes them to find them in the back of the store.

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 8:44 am
  • Scales of Balance

    This is the same repeal that was pitched, almost verbatim, prior to Rep. Boswell being elected.

    This is the result of lobbying by a group that does not have Dare County’s interests as a priority.

    Unfortunately, this was seized on as an opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of environmentalists/leftists/liberals and gathered support simply for that reason. Shame on us for burning our house down just to see a liberal go up in smoke.

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 9:12 am
  • beachgrl

    Just for the record, I went to a Surfrider meeting about the bag ban issue, and their stance was decidedly anti-political. They knew it was the retailers who were pushing for this and encouraged locals to make their voices known to the retailers as well as the lawmakers.

    Anyway, the retailers may be more to blame, but in the end our representatives did not represent the wishes of their constituents on this matter and they know it.

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 3:58 pm
  • Ted

    I live in nj near the beach and the bag might as well be the state bird they are everywhere, definitely noticed the absence of these when in OBX!where’s the pos southern environmental whatever they were that held up the bridge for so long why aren’t they stopping the bag

    Wednesday, Jun 28 @ 11:11 pm
  • John kocsis

    I am not very well educated on this area of the law, but can’t the Dare County commissioners enact it’s own ban? Rep. Boswell is my representative at home and at my beach house . She will not receive either my vote or my acquaintances votes in the future which is truly the only way to deal with politicians who don’t represent the populist.

    Thursday, Jun 29 @ 10:33 am
  • kdh

    toad licker & beachgirl got it right
    boswell & cook will recieve every bag
    that I pick up..we also need to look
    at the trash trucks for better containment as most of the road debris flew out of those rascals…

    Thursday, Jun 29 @ 1:05 pm
  • Joan Brindley

    What I don’t understand is how so many stores are able to still use plastic bags when the big box stores cannot. If the objective is to be rid of them, the objective is not being met.
    I’m behind the ban.
    But I’m kind of a purist, I guess. What’s the effect when all the other smaller retailers are still using them?
    So the real point goes back to the politics. And to the end goal:
    Do we want ‘fewer’plastic bags, or ‘Zero’plastic bags?

    Thursday, Jun 29 @ 10:23 pm
  • ronbo

    Friday, Jun 30 @ 8:19 am
  • Doubleoverhead

    Let’s ban smoking at the OBX, there are way more cigarette butts laying around the beaches than plastic bags.

    Friday, Jun 30 @ 8:27 am
  • Old KH Lady

    The two of us wrote emails and attended meetings in protest of repeal of the plastic bag ban. This ban had been fully incorporated into the community and makes the Outer Banks an even more desirable destination. What do we have if we don’t have clean beaches and healthy sea life? Up & down the coast, beaches have different regulations to control light & physical pollution & protect their wildlife. Boswell & Cook decided that they would make the Outer banks unique in a harmful way. Shame on them for not listening to their constituents. I hope they pay the price when their Election Day arrives.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 2:45 am
  • o2b

    This piece is right in saying those of us who are activists didn’t think smart. We should have been at the big retailers’ stores with signs of protest. We could have hounded the corporate offices of the retailers. We could have outed the big businesses on public websites and social media. We had a number of options.

    But I don’t fault us for focusing where we did—especially we who are new to activism. We have much to learn, and we’re teaching one another. We’re just going to have to put a face on our resistance and commit to public protests when necessary.

    Meanwhile, however, Boswell deserves all the focus she gets, and so does Cook. Both are selling out and refusing to hear the people they represent, and that is definitely an “R” versus “D” issue right now. I think the point, really, is many things are wrong in our current legislative bodies, and there’s more than one way to try righting the wrongs.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 5:37 am
  • CF Merrill

    I was one of those who naively thought Cook and Boswell really were interested in doing what was best for our community, and could be persuaded to change there position if provided with data demonstrating that bag bans work. I realize money talks, but the data showing the effectiveness of bans is overwhelming. Silly me.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 5:45 am
  • Kathryn Fagan

    Many of those against the repeal did constructive things, or so we thought. I know of no local municipality or county commissioner that did not send a proclamation to Cook and Boswell expressing their support of the ban.
    Cook and Boswell do not care what their constituents think about anything. They allow ALEC write the laws (this is not the only state where his has occurred) and they are supported by big oil which in turn is related to the plastics industry. What we think or want MEANS NOTHING.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 8:15 am
  • Kathryn Fagan

    I believe we now have to go to the stores using plastic. Kmart is currently using plastic (never mind that they say it is reusable-no kidding?!)

    We need a boycott. We need to picket the store.

    Is anyone in? I’ll be there.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 8:16 am
  • Local worker

    I worked at a store that was covered by the ban. We did switch to paper bags the first year, but after that went back to plastic and never heard a word about it.

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 8:18 am
  • John kocsis

    Interesting that Pennsylvania governor vetoed a bill passed by legislature that prohibited county and local governments from enacting plastic bag bans just yesterday. He cited local governmental rights to control environmental issues. Where are our local representatives?

    Saturday, Jul 1 @ 10:38 am
  • Islander

    Hopefully one of our more astute Republican Dare County Commissioners will run next election. Boswell will be easy pickings. She is not up for the job. Sad!

    Sunday, Jul 2 @ 4:49 pm
  • Crusty

    If you don’t like plastic shopping bags don’t use them. Don’t force your will on other people or businesses. Shop elsewhere if it bothers you that much. Sheesh.

    Sunday, Jul 2 @ 5:18 pm
  • Really?

    OMG! Who cares what they do in Pennsylvania, they drive on the left in the UK should we start doing that too? Worry about your own problems up there. Stupid law for a problem that doesn’t even exist. More wildlife injuries from monofilament than bags but don’t see anyone trying to ban fishing.

    Monday, Jul 3 @ 11:10 am
  • Mattie Lawson

    I greatly appreciate this article. It confesses the incomprehensible reaction people have shown to the use of plastic bags. While North Korea is planning to nuke us our citizens are having fits over what kind of bag retailers are using and whether they should have the right to choose. The original bill was not about littering but about retailer bag use. The original bill was never voted on by the people. Those that oppose the repeal may respond more emotionally than those in favor but that does not mean they speak for the majority in our dear Dare County. Squeaky wheel doesn’t always work. In any case, the cashiers are happy about the repeal. Those recycle bags are often filthy bug infested rags and the paper cuts from those thin, inadequate paper bags are a safety concern. There is always more than one side to any story. I support less regulation and if this is where the battle lines are drawn, I stand for smaller, less intrusive government.

    Monday, Jul 3 @ 10:58 pm
  • Jon

    Ms. Lawson, the vast majority of bills are never voted on by the public. That’s because we have a republican form of government, not a direct democracy.

    I don’t care what bags you prefer, but please don’t insult my choice.

    My reuseable bags aren’t bug-infested, and I use them for one simple reason: I can carry six of them at a time, which is a full grocery trip in a single trip up the stairs. I can’t do that with paper or plastic.

    Tuesday, Jul 4 @ 9:44 am
  • Ruthless

    Paper cuts? You have got to be kidding!

    Tuesday, Jul 4 @ 10:21 am
  • Dirk

    Ms. Lawson, I am baffled by the thought that you somehow found a way to work North Korea planning to nuke us into this conversation.

    Anyway, I thought the real problem was not paper or plastic, but carpet baggers. The ones who are coming in from the north that you seem to fear so much if we build that bridge.

    Are they North Korean carpetbaggers? That would be something that everyone should be very afraid of. Maybe Fox News will have a report on that soon.

    Tuesday, Jul 4 @ 1:03 pm
  • Michael

    Please please please, in this entire county there has to be more to focus on than plastic bags. Please. I can’t take it anymore. Mattie Lawson, well said!!!!!

    Wednesday, Jul 5 @ 4:30 pm
  • Ruthless

    If you can’t take it, Michael, get off the bus. What’s left of our environment is the best thing we have going. Even with the ban, there is so much plastic flying around…filled a really big kitchen trash bag with mostly plastic from four blocks of beach and our small beach parking area on the morning of the 5th. The cardboard fireworks crap in the dry sand was left for (we can only hope) the residents/guests who probably shot off the stuff the night before. And, yeah, there was some fishing line in the debris pickup. We have to protect what’s left of our best assets…clean water and natural beaches. Heaven help us.

    Thursday, Jul 6 @ 7:23 pm
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