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Plastic bag bans are back, and retailers are scrambling to restock alternatives

Many are hoping local officials will give them more time to ensure a smooth transition.

Bans on single-use plastic bags were put on hold temporarily by the state to help stop the spread of coronavirus.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Restrictions on single-use plastic bags in dozens of municipalities are now back in effect after being suspended by the state for nearly four months. But retailers are hoping cities and towns will delay the enforcement of these local rules and fees to help ensure a smooth transition.

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is already providing that leniency. City officials say the mayor will keep his suspension of Boston’s plastic-bag ban in place until Sept. 30. The Walsh administration wants to give stores time to use up any single-use plastic bags they bought during the COVID-19 pandemic. The local fee of at least 5 cents for all bags with handles, such as paper and compostable bags, will also remain suspended.

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Meanwhile, shoppers in the city are free to use reusable bags again. On Oct. 1, Boston’s nearly two-year-old ban on single-use plastic bags with handles will go back into effect, as will the fee of 5 cents per bag.

Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, said he wants municipal officials to give stores at least one week to one month to make the transition back to the way things were before state officials suspended local bag limits in March. Stores should be allowed to empty out their existing supplies of single-use plastic bags, he said, and be given time to stock up on paper bags, or reusable bags that can be sold at the register to shoppers.

The supermarket trade group first learned on Thursday that the Baker administration would rescind its emergency order, Flynn said. The original order, imposed March 25 by state public health commissioner Monica Bharel, had blocked grocery stores and pharmacies from filling customers’ reusable bags, and temporarily stopped cities and towns from imposing bans or fees on single-use bags. The goal was to curb the spread of COVID-19, by deterring the use of reusable bags.

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Flynn said officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since updated their position on the spread of the coronavirus on surfaces, and many other states have allowed local bans on single-use bags to take effect again. So he wasn’t surprised that Massachusetts was doing so, as well. He just would have preferred a little more advance notice — Bharel rescinded the order on Friday — so his members could adequately plan for the switch.

“The only surprise is we didn’t get more lead time,” Flynn said.

The initial order in March included several other pandemic-related rules for supermarkets and pharmacies, such as requiring access to hand sanitizer and dedicated morning hours for older shoppers. Flynn said those remain in place because they were already integrated into the state’s broader reopening rules for the retail sector.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the sheer number of municipalities with bag ordinances makes it impossible for his group to lobby them individually for leeway. Still, Hurst said he is hopeful that municipal leaders will provide some sort of grace period before enforcing the local rules again, to allow merchants and consumers enough time to prepare.

“Our stores are going to have to restock,” Hurst said.

Hurst said he expects individual store managers and local chambers of commerce will ask for leniency. For example, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s president, Greg Reibman, sent a note to Newton officials on Saturday asking for a 30- to 60-day grace period, to allow merchants to use up at least some of their remaining single-use plastic bags and to restock paper bags, if necessary.

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The Baker administration’s decision to rescind the March order was hailed over the weekend by several environmental groups that view plastic bags as problematic because they contribute to litter and are not biodegradable. As of February, 139 Massachusetts cities and towns, representing over 60 percent of the state’s population, regulated single-use plastic shopping bags, according to the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts chapter.

“Experts from around the world have stated that no known cases of COVID-19 have been linked to any surface, including reusable bags,” Kirstie Pecci of the Conservation Law Foundation said in a prepared statement. “When the Governor issued this order, we didn’t have this information. Now we know single use bags, cups and food are not going to protect us from COVID-19.”

Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.