Massachusetts advocates press for ban on plastic shopping bags
BOSTON — More than 20 years have passed between when Nantucket became the first Massachusetts community to ban plastic shopping bags and Brookline became the second this week. Now, advocates are hoping there’s enough energy to extend the ban statewide.
State Rep. Lori Ehrlich said Friday she plans to co-sponsor a bill to ban the bags when the new legislative session begins in January.
“Brookline is part of the momentum building around the world to get these airborne menaces out of storm drains and waterways,” said Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat.
It will be Ehrlich’s third time sponsoring similar legislation since 2009. Ehrlich said people are more educated now about how the bags pollute the environment and threaten wildlife.
But a statewide ban will face stiff resistance. Representative of state retailers and the food industry say the bags’ dangers are overstated and solutions to replace them come with their own problems. They said people also like the bags because they’re convenient, cheap, waterproof and durable and want to keep using them.
“Consumers like choice, and most consumers don’t like being told by someone else what’s best for them,” said Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
The plastic checkout bags were booted off Nantucket in 1990, when the town began mandating businesses use biodegradable packaging. It took 22 years (Sturbridge knocked down a similar ban in 2008) before Brookline residents overwhelmingly approved another ban Wednesday.
Ban advocates, including the Massachusetts Sierra Club, say the bags are an eyesore, take centuries to break down and inevitably blow out of the garbage bins and landfills that are supposed to contain them. The bags contaminate woodlands, waterways and storm drains, where animals from birds to whales eat them and are weakened or die, they say.
Resident Clint Richmond, who helped push for the ban, said the bags’ environmental costs aren’t worth the benefits, especially with good alternatives such as paper and reusable bags.
“While they’re convenient, they’re not absolutely necessary and ... they have, in many cases, (caused) unusual or above average harm,” he said. “Cows aren’t choking on paper bags.”
The Brookline ban applies to retail stores with more than 2,500 square feet, which must use bags that are compostable or marine degradable.
Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarkets and food stores, said that the compostable material has its own problems, since it can’t be composted without an industrial process or recycled with plastic bags without messing up the batch.
The plastic bags need just a fraction of the transport space as an equivalent amount of paper bags, one reason they’re cheaper for stores and consumers, he said. And the bags, though visible, are just a small part of larger litter problems, he said. But stores are pushing reusable bags and their recycling programs to cut down on their use, Houghton said.
“We’ve always said the problem isn’t the bag itself, it’s what people do with it after they’re done with it,” he said.
Numerous places worldwide have bans on the bags, from San Francisco to Paris. But no state legislature has banned the bags, though by 2015 every county in Hawaii is expected to have enacted restrictions on them.
Ehrlich predicted growing support for her latest proposal.
“Awareness is increasing, and people are demanding that their legislators support it,” she said. “So I’m hopeful that this will be the session we’ll be able to pass it.”