Northampton takes aim at plastic use by restaurants, retail businesses

  • Styrofoam containers. Takeout containers. ARMSTRONG STUDIOS

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2021 2:47:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Six years after passing a ban on single-use plastic bags, the city is moving ahead with regulations to curb plastic use at restaurants and retail businesses.

Taking its lead from a younger generation, the City Council last week unanimously approved on first reading an ordinance crafted by the Mayor’s Youth Commission that would require restaurants to stop giving customers food in disposable containers made of Styrofoam or several kinds of plastic, including polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate. Containers also must be recyclable. Two votes are required to make the ordinance final.

The ordinance, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, also requires restaurants and retail businesses to use disposable ware such as utensils and cups that are biodegradable, compostable, reusable or recyclable. Additionally, the ordinance would prohibit stores from selling Styrofoam packing peanuts, and bans the use of plastic checkout bags in favor of bags that are recyclable or reusable.

“We must address our impact on the ongoing systemic collapse of the climate with the same urgency, commitment and sacrifice that we address the pandemic, particularly in this community,” At-Large City Councilor William Dwight said at the council’s Jan. 7 meeting.

Dwight co-sponsored the measure, first brought to the council last September, with the Youth Commission and Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore.

Although the city passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2015, plastic bags can still be found downtown because that ordinance banned bags that are 3 mils or thinner, considering those that are thicker to be reusable.

Noah Kassis, who chairs the Youth Commission, said at last week’s meeting that for young people, tackling the climate crisis through a plastic ordinance isn’t the “flashiest way of going about it,” but that it is a good first step.

“I think the Youth Commission has been able to see the connections really well … This is one way our city starts to address this and there’s going to be a lot more ways,” Kassis said, noting that the commission intends to put forth more climate-related ordinances in the future.

Exemptions, amendments

Councilors approved several amendments to the ordinance, including requiring businesses that occupy more than 5,000 square feet of space to charge at least 10 cents for checkout bags they provide.

Ward 3 councilor Jim Nash, chairman of the City Council Committee on Community Resources, told the council that the committee worked with the Youth Commission and the Downtown Northampton Association to consult with businesses about the proposal.

Some business owners worried about supply chain issues and others worried that August 2021, the date the potential ordinance was initially proposed to start, was too soon, Nash told the council. The proposal voted on by the council would start on Jan. 1, 2022.

If the pandemic is still ongoing next January, Nash said he will ask the council to delay implementation of the ordinance.

“We don’t want to do undue harm to businesses,” he said.

The Disability Commission, meanwhile, suggested amendments to the ordinance late last year, including that plastic bendable straws must be available upon request “as part of a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) without inquiry into whether they have a disability, the nature of it, or to show documentation,” the commission wrote in a message to the City Council. The council adopted an amendment that allows businesses to provide plastic straws upon request.

The Disability Commission also suggested an amendment that would allow for people to request a plastic bag for the same reason as a plastic straw, as part of the ADA, but the ordinance voted on Thursday did not include that change.

There are also a number of exemptions to the plastics regulations. The mayor’s office would be able to grant a one-year extension to businesses if it finds “that the requirements of this ordinance would cause undue hardship to the establishment,” and two additional six-month extensions could be added.

There may be additional amendments to the proposed ordinance, according to Renna Pye, a resident who has been working with the Youth Commission on the proposal.

“We have had some additional discussion around the bag fee in response to some feedback from the community,” Pye wrote in an email. “Looking at this through an equity lens, we are working on language to potentially modify the bag fee amendment, such that the stores over 5,000 square feet which may charge the bag fee, may also choose to exempt SNAP and WIC customers.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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