By Andy Metzger
Stores and restaurants in Massachusetts would be barred from giving customers single-use plastic bags under a bill that cleared a legislative committee last week and would align state law with local policies adopted from Northampton to Nantucket.
In a Thursday poll, the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture voted 13-1 to give the redrafted bill (H 2121) a favorable report. Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican, voted against the bill, and Rep. Donald Berthiaume Jr. reserved his rights, declining to vote for or against the bill.
Paper bags that are not made of recycled materials would also be banned under the bill, which directs the Department of Environmental Protection to write regulations to enforce the policy.
A variety of local ordinances and bylaws force retailers to charge a fee for carryout bags and ban the traditional wispy thin variety of plastic bags. Nantucket demands that stores’ packaging be biodegradable and Northampton banned thin-film plastic bags, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club.
No fan of plastic bag bans, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts has concentrated efforts on advocating for a consistent policy throughout the state.
“This issue certainly has been frustrating over the years,” said Bill Rennie, vice president of the retailers association. He said, “The biggest problem we have is we don’t think we should be regulating any consumer products at the municipal level. And we’ve had a patchwork of these types of bag bans spread across the Commonwealth.”
Supporters of plastic-bag bans argue the products contribute to pollution and fill up landfills, while opponents contend consumers like to have a choice and the single-use plastic bags are in fact used for a variety of other purposes – such as lining wastebaskets, holding wet clothing, and cleaning up dog poop.
“Massachusetts residents use over two billion single use plastic shopping bags per year, too many of which end up in our trees, parks, and waterways. Plastic does not biodegrade but rather breaks down into microplastics which end up in the bodies of marine animals and even our drinking water. Five minutes of convenience means hundreds of years of toxicity.” – Emily Norton, chapter director of Massachusetts Sierra Club
In December, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh signed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags starting next December in the state’s largest city.
Under the legislation backed by the committee’s chairs, Lenox Rep. Smitty Pignatelli and Spencer Sen. Anne Gobi, stores would be barred from providing a single-use plastic bag starting Aug. 1, 2019. The bill would not preempt cities and towns from further limiting single-use carryout bags but it would render “null and void” any ordinances or bylaws in place before enactment of the bill.
“We’re giving people plenty of time to plan for it,” Pignatelli told the News Service. He said, “I think it’s a good, clean, solid, environmental bill.”
The bill differs from earlier iterations that would have required stores to charge a fee for carryout bags. Pignatelli “didn’t feel comfortable” with the mandatory fee and said retailers can build the cost of giving out recycled paper bags into their business models.
“The reality is that if you get rid of the plastic bag, what you’ve seen is that people opt for paper. And paper is more expensive,” said Rennie. He said re-setting the patchwork of municipal rules would be a “positive step.”
“We would like it to go even further. If we’re going to have a statewide standard, then let’s do that,” Rennie said.
Last week’s vote was not the first time the environment committee has supported legislation limiting the use of plastic bags, and the committee vote is only an initial step toward legislation potentially reaching the floor of the House or Senate.
The Senate previously passed a plastic bag ban via the budget, but the policy has never cleared the House, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club.
The bill allows stores to continue bagging fruit in handle-free plastic bags, permits bags used over clothes by dry-cleaners, and allows pharmacies to provide medication in a paper bag. The redrafted bill was sponsored by Marblehead Rep. Lori Ehrlich and Acton Sen. Jamie Eldridge, both Democrats.
“The thin film bags cannot even be recycled in most places; because they are so light they are sucked up into the reclamation machines and clog the gears, so almost all of them end up in our waste stream,” Ehrlich told the environment committee in written testimony last October.
Eldridge said he prefers including a requirement for stores to charge consumers 10 cents per bag, and appreciates that the bill allows cities to require that.
“I still think that the best policy is also charging 10 cents,” said Eldridge, who said he is “very pleased overall with the bill.”
Eldridge said he sensed Pignatelli’s “enthusiasm” for the bill and hopes that carries over into support from the House as a whole.
As of December, 61 cities and towns representing about 30 percent of the state’s population, have passed bans on single-use plastic shopping bags, according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club, which said Massachusetts has more local plastic bag bans than any state but California.
Pignatelli predicted reusable bags will become increasingly popular gifts handed out by civic organizations and politicians, and he said he might make political accoutrements for trips to the market: a reusable bag that emblazoned with “Re-elect Smitty.”