(NEXSTAR) – Paper? Plastic? Or none of the above?
This month, Walmart locations in three states eliminated single-use plastic and paper bags at checkout, as part of a move designed to encourage customers to bring, or buy, their own reusable bags.
These Walmart locations — in Colorado, Connecticut and New York — join Walmart stores in Maine, New Jersey and Vermont, where single-use bags have already been eliminated for shoppers at checkout registers, or those picking up online orders. (Single-use paper bags are still the default for delivery orders in most of these states, and plastic bags remain available “as needed” in the produce and meat sections, to prevent cross-contamination.)
“Eliminating single-use bags in Connecticut is part of our effort to reduce waste,” said Jane Ewing, senior vice president of Walmart Sustainability, in a statement provided to CT-based WTNH. “Our customers want to be engaged on this journey, and we remain committed to making the sustainable choice the everyday choice.”
The ultimate goal, as explained on the webpage for Walmart’s “Bag Better” initiative, is to eliminate potentially harmful waste entirely. Walmart stores in Mexico and Canada, for instance, have already eliminated single-use bags.
“We’ve set a goal to become a zero waste company, and plastic bags are a part of that,” the site says.
Walmart, however, has so far chosen only to eliminate single-use bags in states that had already enacted, or planned to enact, some kind of ban, restriction or additional fee for the bags. The company’s retail locations in Vermont, for instance, had eliminated single-use bags during a test in the summer of 2020, when the state announced that all businesses would be prohibited from providing them by July 2021. Pennsylvania does not currently have a plan in place, however, Philadelphia does have single-use plastic ban in place and Pittsburgh will launch its ban in April.
Maine largely banned single-use plastic bags in July 2021, the same month as Vermont, at which time Walmart also went “bagless” at Maine locations, according to a Walmart representative.
In New Jersey’s case, a ban on single-use plastic bags — as well as paper bags at larger retailers — was approved in late 2020, with plans to go into effect by May 2022. Walmart locations in New Jersey stopped using single-use bags at statewide locations that month.
As for Colorado, Connecticut and New York, all three states have, or had planned, some form of statewide bag restriction. Colorado’s, which mandated that stores charge 10-cent fees per single-use paper bags, took effect Jan. 1, when Walmart ceased using single-use bags altogether at the state’s locations, Nexstar’s KDVR reported. Connecticut had already banned single-use plastic shopping bags in July 2021, WTNH reported, and New York had done the same the previous year.
In some of these cases, Walmart has opted to go further than the laws required, specifically by banning all single-use bags in states where only plastic bags are no longer allowed. But its plans for future programs in similar states — and which states those may be — have not been publicly outlined.
The company’s corporate website states its intentions to continue encouraging reusable bags, mainly by participating in, and donating money to, a “Beyond the Bag” initiative alongside retailers like Target and CVS, which seeks to find new, sustainable solutions.
“We will continue to follow regulations as well as learning from the pilots we are working on with Beyond the Bag about how to make this transition as convenient as possible for our associates and customers, improve pain points around recycling, offer reusable options and identify additional ways to encourage customers to reuse the bags again and again,” said Aman Singh, Walmart’s leader of global communications, in a statement shared with Nexstar.
When asked where Walmart plans to eliminate single-use bags in the future, Singh declined to provide any specifics.
It would seem likely, though, that Walmart would eventually expand its bag-free policy to states with laws already prohibiting, or somehow restricting, their distribution. California, Delaware, Oregon, Washington and all Hawaii counties already have some sort of restriction (or otherwise widespread ban) on the distribution of plastic shopping bags, or require a fee for paper bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Currently, however, the above states are outnumbered by those with preemption laws on the books, which would block or override any attempt by a smaller municipality or jurisdiction from imposing such a bag ban, according to the NCSL. In some of these states, lawmakers had cited the COVID pandemic for keeping single-use bags around. A senator in Oklahoma, too, had also argued that a fee for plastic bags might raise food costs back in 2019, according to Ballotpedia.
Opponents, meanwhile, say these preemption laws only protect plastics manufacturers. An opponent of the preemption law in Oklahoma accused the bill’s author of doing just that, and bowing to lobbyists with “deep corporate pockets,” per Oklahoma news outlet The Norman Transcript.
Walmart could always choose to eliminate single-use bags at its retail outlets even in states with preemption laws. But so far, it appears as if the company has expanded its bag-free initiatives to states where lawmakers already made the first moves.
There’s also no telling when Walmart might attempt to eliminate single-use bags from future locations. Despite the company’s own goals to “achieve zero waste in [its] own operations” by 2025, Walmart has “not yet” given itself any deadline for nixing the bags nationwide, a representative tells Nexstar.