Skip to content

The Real Problem is Litter


Op Ed by: Andy Ellen, President and General Counsel, NC Retail Merchants Association

It’s easy to believe that the plastic bag ban in the Outer Banks has improved the area’s environment, but it hasn’t. And there’s one simple reason why – litter. Everyone can scapegoat the plastic bags, but the problem isn’t plastic bags and it really never was. It’s litter.

Litter on the side of our roads rarely includes plastic bags, but instead it’s food wrappers, cups and cigarette butts. Even with the ban on plastic bags, the litter problem remains, because litter isn’t a result of the material used, but of the behavior of those who do not know — or do not care — where, when and how to dispose of the product. This is evidenced by the information provided by the totals and types of litter collected during a Wrightsville Beach “Keep It Clean” campaign, an area where there is no plastic bag ban.

Also, for a coastal community with miles of beaches, it should be noted that the benefit of banning plastic bags is mitigated by the fact that at least half of the bags are used for other purposes, like for garbage bags or for picking up after pets on the beach. Shoppers still buy other bags, likely plastic, for those purposes.

There has also been a misconception that small retailers were exempt from the law, but that exemption expired in 2011. This means that every retailer on the affected areas of the Outer Banks should have had the required sign posted in their store since 2009 and be prepared to pay a cash refund for each reusable bag or face a civil penalty of up to $100 for the first violation, up to $200 for the second violation and $500 for the third and each additional violation with every day representing a separate violation. This is just another reason to repeal the plastic bag ban, which is to remove red tape for a measure that provides little to no benefit to the environment.

The most significant environmental risk from banning plastic bags is the increase in energy use. Plastic bags are the most energy-efficient form of grocery bag. The U.K. Environment Agency compared energy use for plastic, paper and re-usable bags. It found the “global warming potential” of plastic grocery bags is one-fourth that of paper bags and 1/173rd that of a reusable cotton bag. In other words, consumers would have to use a reusable cotton bag 173 times before they broke even from an energy standpoint. Thus, even if consumers switched to reusable bags, it is not clear there would be a reduced environmental impact.

It should also be pointed out that while the areas where the plastic bag ban is in effect are located in the Outer Banks, the legislation when enacted was and still remains a statewide bill. Nowhere in the current law is there a reference to Dare or Currituck Counties.

NCRMA strongly supports the repeal of the plastic bag ban, not because we support or oppose the use of the bags, but because we support allowing the choice to remain with the retailers and customers. This isn’t a chain vs. independent or large vs. small store issue, this is a matter of allowing each store and each customer to determine what their own needs are.


About the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association

The North Carolina Retail Merchants Association (NCRMA) is a nonprofit trade association organized in 1902 to improve the business climate for retailers in North Carolina. Over 100 years later, NCRMA remains the voice of the retail industry for North Carolina. NCRMA represents the interests of individual merchants before the General Assembly and serves as a vital link to state government. Its credibility lies in its longevity and commitment to serving the ever-changing needs of its members. The Association’s membership includes more than 25,000 stores from across the state whose business represents 75 percent of North Carolina’s retail sales volume.  NCRMA serves both large and small retailers from multi-state chains to local “mom and pops” and all types of merchants including antique, apparel, art, automotive, book, carpet, department, drug, electronics, floral, furniture, grocery, hardware, jewelry, paint and variety stores. For more information, visit

Amanda Wujcik
Author: Amanda Wujcik

Back To Top