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Altered Habitats

Plastic bag ban stalled in state legislature

 A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento, Calif.

AP Photo

A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento, Calif.

A move to make Massachusetts the first state to ban plastic shopping bags caused a flurry of excitement in some circles last year. Since then … silence.

Legislation to outlaw the thin, checkout-counter shopping bags emerged with an endorsement from the legislature’s environmental committee in April, 2013. It was then referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it has languished for more than a year.

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The legislature’s two-year session formally ends July 31, and so far, there is no indication the bill will be sent by the committee for a vote in the House and Senate.

“Anything can happen,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat. But she acknowledged, “There isn’t much time left.”

Proponents who argue that plastic bags litter our environment, choke marine animals, and wastefully use petroleum remain hopeful that the bill will pop out of committee in the last chaotic weeks of the session. But they are more encouraged by the growing number of municipalities that have taken action, not waiting for the state to enact a tax or a ban.

Nantucket is billed as the first town in the country to ban plastics 24 years ago. Since then, Brookline, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Great Barrington, and Marblehead have enacted some form of plastic bag bans. More than a handful of other communities, including Cambridge, are mulling over the idea.

“Sometimes it takes an on-the-ground effort to bubble up to the legislature,” Ehrlich said.

More than 120 communities in the United States — at least 67 of them in California — have adopted such bans, but no state legislature has done so. The bill approved by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture would exempt small businesses, but prohibit supermarkets and other large stores from giving out bags that were not made of compostable starch.

Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, opposed the bill, arguing at the bill’s hearing a ban was “restraining and counterproductive” to supermarkets. “The bags themselves are not the problem, but rather what consumers do with them after they are finished using them,” he said in testimony.

A libertarian group, the Reason Foundation, said this month their study has shown plastic bags do not reduce litter and asserted there are “likely” health problems from “bacteria-ridden reusable bags.”

Plastic bags are not worse for the earth than any of the other non-biodegradable items we throw away, and are too thin and light to take up much space in landfills. But their chief offense is when they get loose. They litter bushes and alleyways, clog sewers, and when they get into waterways, can choke marine animals and get ingested into the food chain.

According to the American Plastic Manufacturing trade group, Americans use an average of 326 plastic bags per year. Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat and proponent of the legislation, said moving to a habit of carrying reusable bags would be “a big culture shock. Especially for men.”

She thinks there has to be an escape clause: “I think a ban can work, as long as you have some kind of bag for people to buy,” she said. “Human nature being what it is, maybe the reusable bag is forgotten at the home, or the bag is locked in the car, or they had not intended to shop while they were out.”

Many other countries, ranging from Italy to Rwanda, have adopted bans or taxes on plastic bags. Ireland, which levied a tax on plastic bags in 1990, is considered a model success.

But in Massachusetts, “it just has not gotten much attention this year,” acknowledged state Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton who sponsored a Senate bill banning the bags. “I think it’s a classic example where the public is very much embracing this idea, but in the legislature it’s just not as much of a priority.”

Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years and reports on environmental matters from Boston. He can be reached at doug@dougstruck.com.
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