Bag Ban on Hold

By Beth Treffeisen

Those flimsy plastic bags that can be found stuck in the drain gutter, fluttering from a tree, and clogging pristine waterways such as the Charles River may soon be a thing of a past.

The Boston City Council moved to keep this matter on file under the Government Operations Committee until the New Year at the recent hearing held on December 14.

“We have waited long enough,” said Councilor O’Malley. “We have enough evidence from nearby cities across the U.S. that show the benefits of banning plastic bags.”

Following recommendations from a 90-day plastic bag working group,  Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and Councilor Matt O’Malley filed an ordinance to reduce plastic bag waste at the November 30, Boston City Council hearing.

“More than ever it is incumbent upon local cities, municipalities and towns to take and lead on incentives that protect our environment,” said Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley. “This Ordinance supports environmental protection while supporting small businesses and encouraging relief for consumers.”

The purpose of this ordinance is to reduce the use of disposable checkout bags by retail establishments in the City of Boston thereby curbing litter on the streets, protecting marine environment and waterways, reduce greenhouse gas emission, and solid waste, and to promote the use of reusable bags.

The ordinance will affect checkout bags, which include any carryout bag provided by a store to a customer at the point of sale. Any bag that a retail establishment does provide must be a reusable bag, recyclable bag or a compostable plastic bag.

At stores that provide any type of checkout bag it will be sold to the customer for five cents per bag. All money that is collected will go straight back to the store to cover the additional cost of the more expensive thicker plastic bags.

These will not include bags, whether plastic or not, in which loose produce or products are placed by a consumer to deliver items to the point of sale, laundry or dry-cleaner bags, newspaper bags, bags used to contain or wrap frozen foods, meat or fish.

“Any time we are talking about adding costs to a family’s budget it is something we have to do thoughtfully and deliberately,” said Wu. “All of us who represent constituents know what families are going through and know how hard it is to make it pay check to pay check and make ends meet.”

If a violation occurs the Office of Environment will issue a warning notice. Any violation that occurs after the initial warning notice will be $50 for the first offense and $100 for the second offense and all subsequent offenses.

Retail Establishments that have already purchased single-use plastic bags before the ordinance goes into affect will be able to use them up if they ask for an exemption.

All the requirements by this law will take effect within a year of passage.

“This is going to be impactful, this is the right thing to do,” said Wu. “This will have real benefits to Boston.”

The recycling company Casella noted that thin plastic bags get twisted around their machinery and are not in condition to be recyclable after being mixed in with food products or other waste. This causes them to spend many hours every week untangling plastic bags from gears.

Councilor O’Malley stated that there are 20 tons per month of cheap flimsy plastic bags through residential single stream recycling that end up clogging the recycling equipment.

“By proactively taking a stance on this we are helping our tax payers because we will be able to offer more efficient recycling,” said O’Malley.

O’Malley said that he understands he has been working to make the city more dog friendly and that many people use these plastic bags to clean up after their poaches.

Jen Fond the owner of WannaGoOut? a dog-walking business that caters to the downtown neighborhoods of Boston said that her dog walkers use environmentally friendly poop bags already.

“A bag ban wouldn’t impact us because of the aforementioned but could result in more loose poop in and around Boston,” wrote Fond in e-mail.  “Though those who don’t pick up after their pup regardless of ban still won’t and those that are poop conscientious but use produce bags, etc., will hopefully just invest in poop bags.”

This ordinance will require retail establishments in Boston to offer plastic bags of at least three mils in thickness, such as bookstore bags, that are more reusable.

Brian Houghton the Vice President of the Massachusetts Food Association said he would rather see legislation at the state level.

“There are 252 towns in Massachusetts and they’re all using different programs,” said Houghton. “It get’s complicated with a multi town state. For larger companies it gets difficult to operate.”

Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and Newton all have similar plastic bag bans already. Overall, in Massachusetts there are about 40 cities and towns who have legislation or are in the works of proposing legislation.

This can get difficult for larger chain stores that have to supply different types of bags to different towns that sometimes border each other. Differences include the thickness of the bag, 2.5 or 3.0, or even 4.0 mil thick, which types of stores are impacted, and if there will be a fee.

“It’s tough to get everyone on the same page,” said Houghton.

In Boston, CVS Pharmacy stated that they would fully comply with the city ordinance, as they have in other cities across the U.S. with similar ordinances.

Walgreens is on a similar page but does have some concerns.

“We are currently evaluating the full proposal and are concerned that it lacks an exemption commonly provided in ordinances that other local governments have enacted,” wrote James W. Graham a spokesman for Walgreens.

He continued, “Namely, we believe it should include an exemption from the fee for the small paper bags used to hold prescription medications, which are not just a customer convenience but an important way to protect patient privacy.”

At the supermarket Whole Foods, they have made it easy for themselves. They banned disposable plastic grocery bags at the checkouts at their stores in the U.S., Canada and the UK on Earth Day in 2008.

Soon, many other grocery stores will have to follow suit.

O’Malley said, “It’s the right thing to do and it is high time that Boston pass this ordinance.”

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