Effort to Ban Plastic Bags Joins Wider Environmental Trend

By Al Nasution
BU News Service 

NEWTON – Paper, plastic – or a hybrid blend of recycled materials?

The proverbial question asked by a cashier is becoming politically complex – both locally and around the country – and Newton is getting in on the act.

In mid-October, a committee in Newton deliberated whether or not to impose a fee for the use of paper and plastic bags that are not at least 40% post-consumer recycled content at certain retail stores.

The proposal, sponsored by the Board of Program and Services Chairman Ted Hess-Mahan, states that bags that do not fulfill the requirements should be charged 5 or 10 cents per bag at larger retail stores in Newton. According to the proposal, a store is constituted as “large” if it is 4,000 square feet or more.

“The environmental and economic implications of plastic use has been significant,” Hess-Mahan said. According to him, Newton “spends a large amount of money cleaning up the streets” because if not, “all sorts of animals eat them.”

Hess-Mahan explored if the committee could impose a bid for “the funds collected to be split” between the city and retail stores. He suggested the collected funds could help finance the removal of waste, including plastic bags, from the Charles River and other parts of greater Boston.

The Newton proposal comes as part the Massachusetts legislature’s own initiative to ban the use of plastic bags in retail stores statewide. If the bill – first introduced in 2010 – eventually passes, Massachusetts will be the first state to enact such a ban.

At the Newton meeting, Alderman Richard Blazar said he agreed with the ban, but he said that they should gradually introduce a fee on plastic bags.  “It’s like paying money to pollute the environment,” he said at the meeting.

Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he agreed with the environmental benefits of eradicating plastic bags but would “oppose any tax” imposed on the Massachusetts customers. Rennie said that the economic downturn has impacted retail stores and the tax would put Newton retailers “at a competitive disadvantage from neighboring communities.”

The proposal also comes at a time when some retailers have begun to move away from plastic bags as part of their company policy.  Both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have long since provided paper bags for its customers. These retail stores also sell grocery bags made out of recycled materials. According to the Whole Foods website, the company will rebate as much as 10 cents whenever customers bring their own bag. They also sell long lasting grocery bags made out of recycled materials for less than a dollar.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are two other cities that have agreed to phase out the use of plastic bags in big retail stores in this year.

According to a report published by the Office of Economic Analysis in San Francisco, some countries and cities that carry a ban on plastic bags have seen an estimated 68% reduction in plastic use. The study says that the ban will only have a “small, though positive” change because “the full amount of checkout charge revenue received by local retailers” will not be affected.

Other Massachusetts towns have also proposed similar environmental bills. Concord had successfully passed a ban for the sale of single-serving plastic bottles, while Brookline will be discussing the ban of Styrofoam cups and plastic bags at retail stores this November.

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