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Natick man seeks town plastic-bag ban

Pat Conaway won the town’s Shining Light award last year for his environmental work.

Pat Conaway won the town’s Shining Light award last year for his environmental work.

Natick environmentalist Pat Conaway is prepared for folks in town to tell him to bag it.

The 68-year-old longtime Natick resident has filed a petition under which Town Meeting in October will be asked to consider whether to prevent most commercial establishments from using single-use plastic bags. The initiative is an effort to encourage residents to use reusable bags instead of the single-use ones with handles that are commonly used in retail stores.

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“It could be a tough go,” Conaway said during a recent telephone interview. “The Board of Selectmen doesn’t want to put huge cost increases on businesses, which I understand.”

The ban would not include plastic bags for fruits and vegetables, nuts, candy, grains, meat, fish, or baked goods. Plastic bags used for trash, recycling,and newspapers would be permissible as well.

Stores would have a six-month grace period before full compliance by May 1, 2015. The proposal would allow stores to charge customers a minimum of 10 cents per paper bag as long as the bags contain at least 40 percent recycled materials, and do not include fibers from old-growth forests.

Revenues from paper bags could be retained by stores to finance low-cost reusable bags. Stores could also petition the Board of Selectmen for a full or partial waiver from the prohibition.

Plastic bags “are really high on the list of the worst types of single-use [products] we use because what they do is entangle animals and creatures all over the world and kill them,” Conaway said. “It’s sort of the poster child for one of our worst consumer items. I think it’s a way to raise awareness of how single-use items are polluting the world. People don’t know how much is filling the rivers and streams and goes into oceans and entangles marine life of all kind, wildlife and turtles. It’s a real bad product.

“We can find an alternative to this product. While this product is convenient, it’s a convenience we can definitely choose to avoid and stop using.”

Many municipalities across the country have already banned single-use plastic bags. Earlier this month, a ban on plastic bags cleared a key committee vote in the California Legislature, but industry lobbyists are mounting a strong campaign against the bill, which would make California to first to enact a statewide prohibition on their use. A similar measure stalled on Beacon Hill last year.

Several towns in Massachusetts have banned the bags, including Brookline, Great Barrington, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Nantucket.

A handful of other municipalities, including Cambridge, are considering bans of their own.

Conaway founded the nonprofit Big Heart, Little Feat to help people reduce their carbon footprint after he retired from his career as a Wayland teacher in 2008. The organization later merged with the Lake Cochituate Watershed Council.

Conaway was Natick’s Senior Man of the Year for this year, and also won the town’s Shining Light award last year for his environmental work, including organizing about 50 cleanups of local waterways and trails.

But while Conaway said charging 10 cents per paper bag is an incentive for customers to bring their own reusable bags to stores, the owners of Tilly and Salvy’s Bacon Street Farm said that they only offer plastic bags because customers demand them.

“Products [such as] raw meat and prepared meals have the potential for liquid [spilling], and paper products don’t hold up as well,” said Ryan Ciccarelli, son of the grocery store’s owner. “I personally prefer paper. I know it’s better for the environment and more sturdy, but for a lot of customers it’s just too bulky.”

Ciccarelli said paper bags cost about twice as much as plastic, and he doesn’t like the idea of passing along the cost or making the customer pay for bags.

“How much can customers keep taking as far as costs?” he said. “Eventually they don’t want to buy a product anymore. They can only spend so much money on the product themselves. Food prices have gone so high. Food costs so much, all of sudden, they will be charged for bags. It’s a little ridiculous.

“We’re not concerned about the bottom line as much as having a customer spending an extra dollar charge [on bags] rather than save the money or use it toward stuff they can consume, not a product to carry our stuff.”

Ciccarelli said their plastic bags are recyclable and they already sell canvas bags with their logo for $5 each. He said a lot of customers bring their own bags, but charging them would make them feel like they are being “punished” for forgetting their reusable bags.

”Customers often say ‘Shoot, I left my bags at home,’” he said. “It’s not something they always have on them.”

Terry Miller, who chairs the town’s Recycling Committee, said the panel considered seeking a plastic-bag ban about a year ago.

“Some members felt that it should be a statewide issue, and it would be difficult to implement in Natick alone,” she said in an e-mail.

Peter Win, an assistant manager at the Brookline Booksmith, said there was an adjustment period after Brookline’s plastic bag ban went into effect on Dec. 1. He said after a six-month grace period, the store was officially plastic-free by May 1.

“For the most part it’s been fine,” he said. “It took a little while to get used to it for us because paper bags take up more space, so physically it’s harder to store the volume that we use.”

He said customers adapted fairly easily as well, except when rain soaks their paper bags. He also said that paper bags cost the store about three times as much as plastic.

“So it’s not a small number, but that is part of the cost of doing business,” Win said. “And we understand why people would be in favor of laws like this.”

Natick Board of Selectmen chairman Josh Ostroff called the issue “worthy,” but said he needed more information before he could comment in detail.

“I would like to see respect for the environment and for merchants,” he said, “but would need to see what’s been submitted.”

Conaway recognizes the inconveniences for retailers, but he said that ultimately, the cost of doing nothing will be more than the cost of banning plastic bags.

“These bags are everywhere; they are in trees and bushes,” he said.

“The costs of cleaning things up and recycling are falling on taxpayers and ordinary people. Municipalities and towns are paying the cost and, of course, wildlife is paying a huge cost.

“If it doesn’t pass, it will at least get word out and get debate going, and get people to think and talk about it and maybe it can be successful the following year. So if not this year, maybe next year.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com
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