Plastic bag ban could become Massachusetts law

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BOSTON — Residents across the commonwealth may soon face what shoppers in 20 Bay State municipalities already experience every time they go to the store — a ban on disposable plastic shopping bags.

The latest shot fired in the war on plastic takes the form of proposed legislation, the Plastic Bag Reduction Act, filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat. Ehrlich’s bill seeks not only to reduce but to eliminate the use of thin-film bags by the summer of 2018.

The Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture this week issued a favorable report on the legislation, meaning it will now advance to House Committee on Ways and Means and will likely come up for a full vote.

If passed in its current form, plastic bags like those used to carry prescription drugs, unwrapped food (such as apples) or cover laundered clothes are exempt. Shoppers would, however, be required to use either a reusable grocery bag or pay no less than 10 cents to obtain a a recycled paper bag from the store. The law applies to any store in the state and defines ‘store’ as either “a retail establishment with gross interior space of 3,000 square feet or larger” or a business “with at least three locations under the same ownership or brand name within the commonwealth.”

The law, if passed, will go into effect on Aug. 1, 2018.

California schemin’?

A “yes” vote on Ehrlich’s proposal would make Massachusetts the second state in the nation to pass such a ban, joining California, which passed its own bag-ban law in 2014.

Backers of the bill found out soon after Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law on Sept. 30, 2014, that they had more work ahead: In February 2015, the state announced that opponents of the legislation had secured enough signatures to put the ban to a public vote.

This fall, California voters will choose whether their state becomes to first to ban plastic bags. The law as passed by the state Legislature is currently suspended until voters decide at the ballot box.

Supporters of the ban are crying foul, pointing out that out-of-state money is pouring into a campaign to convince voters to overturn the state Legislature’s decision. A group calling itself California vs. Big Plastic, and describing itself as a “coalition of environmental, business, consumer, labor groups and citizens opposed to the referendum campaign led by out-of-state plastic bag companies,” has mobilized to prevent the public from weighing in on the ban.

For its part, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a coalition of plastics manufacturers supporting the referendum, has established a website called The site claims that plastic bags are “the most environmentally-friendly option at the checkout,” that E. coli and other bacteria bugs find friendly accommodations inside reusable bags and more than 90 percent of Americans find ways to reuse their plastic bags.

New York City next?

The APBA has also waged a similar campaign in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio is on the verge of convincing the City Council to pass a law imposing five cent fees on all plastic and paper bags.

According to a recent Politico New York report, the city councilor and chief sponsor of the bill wants to see the measure passed before Earth Day on April 22.

The APBA argues that the proposal is a regressive tax which will punish the most vulnerable., The proposal does, however, contain a provision exempting SNAP and WIC-dependent customers from the fee.

“The NYC bag tax will burden the millions of New Yorkers who struggle to make ends meet. Though stores will waive the charge for providing paper or plastic bags for customers using SNAP or WIC benefits, the exemption does nothing for the working poor who are not SNAP or WIC participants and will have to pay more for their groceries,” the group claims on its website.


Here in the Bay State, some of the most progressive towns have already enacted their own bans on plastic. Ehrlich’s bill would not affect any of the bans already in place.

According to the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, which maintains an evolving list of all such ordinances, Nantucket became the first to enact a ban in 1990 when the island municipality passed an ordinance banning non-biodegradable “packaging added to or supplied by a vendor or commercial establishment.”

Approximately 22 years later, in 2012, Brookline Town Meeting made that city the first Massachusetts mainland municipality to pass a plastic bag ban. Brookline stores caught distributing plastic bags are subject to a $50 fine and subsequent $100 fines for each incident thereafter.

That same year, Concord Town Meeting approved an ordinance banning the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles — becoming the first municipality in the nation to do so.

In 2013, the year Concord’s bottled water law went into effect, the town of Manchester followed Brookline’s lead on a plastic bags. The year 2014 saw three more towns enact bans, including Erlich’s hometown of Marblehead.

Nine more cities and towns joined the list last year, including Cambridge, Newton and Somerville. Newton’s proposal was spearheaded by Councilor Emily Norton, who also serves as the director of Massachusetts Sierra Club Chapter.

Norton and two other Newton city councilors were honored in November 2015 as “Heroes of the Ocean” during an event that was sponsored in part by Norton’s chief employer, the Sierra Club, as noted by the Newton community discussion site Village 14.

After news emerged of the award, Village 14 polled residents to ask about life under the plastic bag ban.

Resident Mike Striar, a former mayoral candidate, called the ban “inappropriate” and “a pain.”

“The uniformity of paper bags just doesn’t work well for a lot of heavier items, especially in inclement weather,” Striar added.

Resident Bob Burke countered that “it’s a better day when even few (sic) less plastic materials get into our waterways where they are so deadly to fish and other wildlife.”

Resident Jeff Pontiff, a finance professor at Boston College, said that the proposal features a “real holier-than-thou element.”

“It puts Newton businesses at a disadvantage to competitors in non-nanny towns,” Pontiff added. “Do we want a new business who considers Newton to have to hire a lawyer to figure out the special regulations to which it is subjected?”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.