Massachusetts could become the first state to ban plastic bag use at large retail stores, part of an effort to prevent litter from harming marine animals and to reduce waste scattered through streets and stuck in tree branches.
Lawmakers on the joint Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Committee advanced the two bills, a House version and a Senate version, by voting favorably Monday, immediately following a hearing on the issue. The bills would ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores larger than 4,000 square feet. The ban would exempt smaller retail stores, as well as the produce and bakery bags used inside grocery stores.
Representative Lori Ehrlich, Democrat of Marblehead, who sponsored the House bill, said society’s disposable culture “seems to be catching up with us.” Plastic bags make up 10 percent of the debris that washes up on the shore, she said.
“Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute the oceans for hundreds of years,” Ehrlich said.
Hundreds of communities across the country have banned the bags. The most recent to do so in Massachusetts are Brookline and Manchester-by-the-Sea.
There have been no statewide bans in the United States, although Hawaii has a de facto ban since all of its four counties now prohibit nonbiodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags that are not at least 40 percent recycled.
Similar legislation was recommended by Massachusetts lawmakers on the Environment Committee last session, but it never surfaced for a vote in the House. Representative Anne Gobi, Democrat of Spencer, and Senator Marc Pacheco, Democrat of Taunton, who chair the committee, said that with more communities instituting bans, it makes sense for the state to take action, rather than have different regulations in each community.
“I think there is a growing movement across society,” Pacheco said after the hearing.
No one from the plastic bag industry testified against the bills.
Other states are considering similar bans, including Rhode Island.
Environmentalists said the bags are a danger to the state’s coastlines and kill sea turtles, whales, seals, and other marine wildlife that swallow plastic or are strangled by the bags.
Americans throw away more than 1 billion plastic bags a year, with less than 5 percent recycled, said Roxanne Zak of the Sierra Club. “They are creating an environmental crisis for us here, and in the whole world, not just the United States.”
The bags, which take hundreds of years to decompose, end up in trees or storm drains and eventually wind up in waterways, she said.
Ehrlich’s bill makes an exception for certain biodegradable plastic bags.
Recycling does not solve the problem, environmentalists argued. In most cases, the resin in plastic bags can only be used once, and recycling them is costly.
Approximately half the bags are rejected for recycling because they are contaminated by food waste, say environments.lists.
Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill, said plastic bag litter creates a blight on communities and damages oceans, pointing to the debris floating in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.