Mass. Senate adds plastic bag ban to agriculture bill

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STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts shoppers would be able to buy craft beers and spirits at farmers markets — but not take those bottles or any other purchases home in a plastic bag — under a bill approved Thursday by the Senate.

An omnibus bill (S 2171) that passed the Senate on a 36-1 vote takes a variety of steps aimed at promoting agriculture in the state.

It includes measures that would allow farmer brewers and distillers to sell their goods at agricultural events and farmers markets; let Department of Conservation and Recreation Land be used for community gardens or temporary public markets in certain circumstances; develop a program supporting veterans working in agriculture; and establish a regulatory framework for off-site raw milk distribution by licensed farmers. The programs in total would cost $1.2 million in the next fiscal year, according to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“Maintaining a robust agricultural economy is the right thing to do, for our farmers, communities and the Commonwealth,” Sen. Anne Gobi, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said in a statement.

The lone vote against the bill came from Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican who said his opposition was driven by an amendment to the bill that banned farmers market vendors from providing customers with “single-use plastic carryout bags.”

“I just can’t see why we would treat one retailer different and hone in on one versus all the others in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said.

The plastic bag amendment, sponsored by Newton Democrat Sen. Cynthia Creem, was added to the bill on a 24-12 vote.

Creem said the measure would require vendors to offer either paper bags or reusable cloth bags to their customers for free and allow them to sell reusable bags or offer them for free. The thinner, plastic produce bags commonly used to protect, separate or otherwise “contain an unwrapped food item” would not be banned.

“Since my communities and others have already banned plastic bags at supermarkets or other large retailers, farmers markets seem like a good step for us to take this because they are about supporting local agriculture and promoting a healthy life,” Creem said. “And that is what we would be doing by banning plastic bags.”

In an exchange that could preview debate over a more widespread plastic bag ban if that bill is taken up by the full Legislature, supporters of Creem’s amendment described it as an environmentally sound step while critics cautioned against onerous regulations.

A bill to ban stores statewide from giving out single-use plastic carryout bags was endorsed by the Environment Committee on April 7 and is now before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who sponsored one of the bills on which the committee based its legislation, said that about 20 Massachusetts communities have imposed their own plastic bag bans. He compared it to the state’s ban on smoking in public places, which he said the Legislature took on after municipal regulations reached a “critical mass.”

“I think a similar conversation is happening on plastic bags,” the Acton Democrat said.

Westfield Republican Sen. Donald Humason said the farmers market bag ban would target a product that is “used widely and used responsibly.”

“I don’t know about you, but a single-use plastic bag in my house gets about nine uses,” Humason said. “From carrying wet bathing suits back and forth from the Y to picking up dog poop to doing laundry and carrying stuff in our lunch bag and as a trash liner in our little office trash barrels, there’s no such thing as a single use.”

Also tacked on to the agriculture bill, which will next move to the House, were amendments requiring farmers market vendors to display information on the source or grower of their products and creating a commission to study the health of bees and other pollinators in Massachusetts.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service