Joyce Rowley: Plastic bags on way out of Mass.?

  By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

Six years ago, the city of Somerville passed one of the first ordinances in New England requiring large retailers to recycle plastic shopping bags. Now it’s poised to be one of the first to ban the bag in Massachusetts.

“It was a great victory,” said Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz of the earlier campaign to recycle plastic bags. Gewirtz is confident that a new law eliminating plastic shopping bags will also become a reality.

The Somerville Board of Alderman recently sent a draft ordinance to the legislative matters committee for final review.

“I’ve heard nothing but support for it from residents," said Alderman Mark Niedergang, a member of the energy and environment special subcommittee. “It’s time has come.”

Citing impacts to marine and land ecosystems by thin-film plastic shopping bags, the law would allow only compostable or marine-degradable plastic bags that meet certain standards. Reusable plastic bags with 2.25 millimeter thickness or better, as well as durable bags of other materials, could be handed out to customers.

The new law would apply to businesses greater than 2,500 square feet or with three or more stores in single ownership that have a combined size of 2,500 square feet, and retail pharmacies of any size with two or more stores under the same ownership within city limits.

Convenience stores that have gross annual sales in excess of $1 million would have to comply.

“Customers ask for them,” said Ben Weiner, owner of a local liquor store who spoke in opposition to the ban at a public hearing in November. Holding up a black plastic bag used at liquor stores, he said the bags are a convenience.

Resident Maureen Barillaro brought a large plastic bag full of retailers’ shopping bags she had collected along the Mystic River  before the hearing. Reading from a list, she ticked off the names of the retailers the bags came from, and included the black bags favored by liquor stores.

"Somerville is a growing city with a large population. So there’s a lot of plastic bags,” Barillaro said. “A plastic bag ban is really the only way we're ever going to eliminate this issue.”

Somerville would be the sixth Massachusetts municipality to ban plastic shopping bags. Brookline, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Great Barrington and Nantucket have bans in place.

Nantucket's sweeping biodegradable packaging ban, in place since 1990, calls for using anything other than plastic or Styrofoam on all “packaging added to or supplied by vendors or commercial establishments within the Town of Nantucket for merchandize of any type being removed from the establishment.”

Somerville also passed a ban last year on polystyrene (Styrofoam). The law took effect in May and became enforceable in October.

Both ordinances were modeled after Brookline — the city’s polystyrene and plastic bag ban took effect last year. Those ordinances passed by a vote of Town Meeting in 2012.

“It’s going surprisingly well,” said Dr. Alan Balsam, Brookline’s director of public health, whose department is charged with enforcing the bans. “We expected difficulties.”

Balsam’s department supplied retailers with a list of vendors that supply alternatives to plastic. Still, the polystyrene ban took longer to get full compliance.

“Polystyrene is in every food place; there are over 350 in town,” Balsam said.

This year, 100 food services got six-month exemptions as allowed by the law, and about 80 received an extension to the end of 2014. Most are now in compliance except for one or two items, such as plastic coffee-cup lids and the condiment containers in take-out restaurants, according to Balsam. The chain coffee shops such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks have alternatives to both the cups and lids.

“You go to the grocery stores, and people put one item in a plastic bag,” said Gewirtz, the Somerville alderman. “They leave with dozens of bags. And where do the bags end up? They end up in the landfills and the waterways. They choke marine life and they never biodegrade. My hope is that we'll get plastic bags banned statewide.”

Massachusetts has yet to pass a plastic reduction or elimination law, although there are five proposed bans in committee.

Editor’s note: SCATV public access coverage of the Nov. 20 public hearing was used for a portion of this article.