Georgia grocery stores’ lobbyist pokes at proposed plastic bag ban

    State Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat, holds a photo showing plastic bags and other garbage trapped by a grate along the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta. The photo was used to bolster her case for stopping retailers from using plastic bags in most situations. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    A proposal to ban the use of plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers had a public airing Wednesday at the Gold Dome.

    The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat, drew support from environmentalists who warned of the harm the growing waste stream has on wildlife and human health.

    But it also ran into concerns from grocers who argue they already make alternatives to plastic bags – specifically, paper bags and reusable bags – readily available to customers at the checkout counter.

    “In the grocery business, we are all about giving the customers what they want,” Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, told lawmakers. “Whatever soup they ask for, that’s what we carry. Whatever soft drinks. Whatever they want, that’s what we carry.”

    Some grocery chains, she noted, have already made moves to gradually phase out plastic bags. Many of them offer receptacles for customers who wish to recycle them.

    “It’s just an absolute stop on the plastic bags and where are we going to go from there?” Kuzava said, referring to the proposed ban.

    But proponents of the ban say many people don’t go through the trouble of returning plastics bags to the store and even when they do, the bags can only be recycled so many times.

    They also argue the bill amounts to incremental change, since many exceptions would be allowed. For example, the ban would not apply to garment bags, newspaper wrappers or food deliveries. Lawmakers are also discussing whether to add an exemption for Georgians accustomed to using plastic bags to scoop their dog poop.

    Any violator would be charged with a misdemeanor for each plastic bag illegally distributed.

    Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, called the proposal “a necessary and needed first step to addressing the plastic problem.”

    “We certainly don’t believe that this is a fix-all for every source of the waste that ends up in our waterways,” Demonbreun-Chapman said. “I can attest that the blight of loose plastic bags is a significant one.”

    The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper regularly patrols the river for trash, often finding not just plenty of plastic bags but also the pieces of harmful microplastics that the bags eventually break down into before being ingested by fish and other wildlife.

    “It’s very, very alarming for us,” said Jason Ulseth, the group’s riverkeeper.

    So far, eight states have banned single-use plastic bags. California was the first to do so in 2014.

    As proposed, the Georgia measure would take effect next year, but James said she’s open to giving retailers until 2024 to prepare for the change, although she noted some stores – like Kroger – are already moving in that directions.

    James said she thinks lawmakers who may have been quick dismiss such a proposal in the past are more receptive these days.

    “It seems that even those who don’t believe that it’s causing harm to the environment, they see that we have snow one day and 67 degrees the next,” James told reporters afterwards. “Something is going on and we better take control, for us and for generations to come. So many of them are saying, ‘Let me take a look at it.’”

    Sen. Frank Ginn, who chairs the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee that held the hearing, seemed to still have his reservations. Ginn would need to call the bill up for a committee vote for it to advance to the full Senate.

    “I do think that it is a problem, that working together we can find the solutions to it,” the Danielsville Republican said.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.