Northampton City Council eyes ordinance to clamp down on plastics

  • Plastic straws in lemonade at a street fair in New York on June 7, 2018. California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, signed the nation's first state law barring dine-in restaurants from giving customers plastic straws unless they are requested. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS) Richard B. Levine

  • A frontloader consolidates a mound of plastic at the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2020 7:15:13 PM
Modified: 9/17/2020 7:15:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Although the city passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2015, plastic bags can still be found downtown.

“A number of businesses — larger chains for the most part — figured out a workaround on giving away plastic bags,” said City Councilor Bill Dwight. Some just give thicker plastic bags, as the ordinance banned bags that are 3 mils or thinner, considering those that are thicker to be reusable.

A new proposed ordinance would totally eliminate plastic checkout, and it would also take it several steps further.

The “Plastic Reduction & Sustainability Ordinance,” first introduced in City Council on Sept. 3, would not allow restaurants to give customers food in disposable containers made of Styrofoam or several kinds of plastic — polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate — and those containers must be recyclable. Any disposable ware restaurants use would have to be biodegradable, compostable, reusable or recyclable. The proposed ordinance would also prohibit stores from selling Styrofoam packing peanuts and Styrofoam food service ware. Checkout bags must be recyclable paper or reusable — which the ordinance says cannot be made of plastic.

Dwight, Councilor Rachel Maiore, and the Mayor’s Youth Commission recommended the ordinance. As it’s currently drafted, it would not go into effect until Aug. 1, 2021, and the mayor would be permitted to grant six-month exemptions to businesses if the ordinance would cause “undue hardship to the establishment.”

The Youth Commission started drafting the ordinance a year ago, said Noah Kassis, the commission’s chairman and a senior at Northampton High School.

“I feel the need to remind you all that we are barreling toward catastrophic climate change at full speed, and no level of our government … has responded appropriately yet,” he said speaking in favor of the ordinance at City Council earlier this month. “Young people will bear the heaviest load. And responsible government has to listen to our call.”

Maiore has been interested in an ordinance like this since she ran for office. “I just think Northampton has always been kind of a model in the region, and I feel like what we hear from residents is they want to be on the cutting edge of addressing the climate crisis,” she said. “This is a major part of it — reducing plastics and really planning on how to meet our carbon neutral goal,” she said of the city’s goal to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Some residents have spoken in support of the proposal. Joanna Grand, senior scientist at the National Audubon Society, said she is a “fervent supporter” of the ordinance. “More plastic trash is being produced and improperly disposed of around the world today than ever before,” Grand said at the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, emphasizing the negative impacts on birds.

Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, has heard some concerns from businesses about being able to acquire the appropriate supplies and the increased cost they may incur. Some businesses, however, have already started following these practices, she said.

As for the August 2021, deadline, Cahillane said, “certainly if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic that would be plenty of time,” she said. But, “trying to plan ahead of next August also feels like an impossible task.”

Alhough she has heard some concerns, “this isn’t a business owner pitted against Youth Commission in some sort of oppositional stance,” she said. “We are all committed to the same ultimate goal of an environmentally friendly downtown.”

The Youth Commission and the Downtown Northampton Association will be meet Friday for business to talk about the proposed ordinance.

Robbie Bocon, general manager of the Eastside Grill, urged City Council to pass the ordinance at the meeting earlier this month. “Stick to the timeline, please,” he said. “The 2021 deadline is fantastic. Any restaurant should be able to stick to that — given that COVID doesn’t go the way it goes.”

At Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery, most cups are already biodegradable, and all the ice cream that’s not sold or given to the Survival Center is fed to pigs and the baked good to chickens, said the store’s owner, Judy Herrell.

But one of the major issues Herrell sees with the proposed ordinance is straws. She said some people with disabilities need the sturdier plastic, as opposed to paper, straws. Alternatives like silicone tend to not be flexible, which can be an issue for those with mobility issues, NPR reported.

“Plastics straws I don’t think should be banned,” Herrell said, adding that the shop currently offers paper and plastic ones. She also doesn’t see herself getting rid of straws altogether. “When you’re sucking on a milk shake, you really need a straw,” she said.

There can also be supply issues — she has tried using spoons that are compostable or edible, but they aren’t strong enough to hold hard ice cream and break, she said.

The Youth Commission talked with Cooley Dickinson Hospital about issues of accessibility of non-plastic straws, Kassis said.

“They assured us there were not issues finding accessible alternatives, and they were already moving in this direction,” he said.

It’s a difficult time for some businesses, Maiore acknowledged. “We understand it’s a really challenging time for businesses,” she said. “We’re planning to really work with businesses.”

Kassis echoed her. “If we pass this ordinance, we’ll be able to work with business and the city government to set up bulk purchasing,” he said, “to set up better education and management around the waste stream issues.”

The proposed ordinance has been referred to the City Council’s Committee on Community Resources, which meets on Monday.

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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