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Massachusetts plastic bag ban is now tied up in Beacon Hill

Reusable bags at the Big Y. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

As more and more cities across the state and country prohibit plastic shopping bags, a statewide ban came closer to reality last month. There’s just one major problem: Some of the most adamant supporters of efforts to enact a ban say they can’t support the bill.

At the heart of the issue is an ideological battle over how well plastic bag ban policies actually work, and whether such legislation creates unintended environmental consequences.

A coalition of environmental, retail, and municipal groups had worked with lawmakers to draft legislation with two key components: banning single-use plastic bags statewide and requiring a fee on all paper bags used during checkout. The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Representative Lori Ehrlich and Senator Jamie Eldridge, and endorsed by nearly 100 legislators and 200 constituent groups.


Now that coalition says the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee’s closed-door dealings weakened the proposal to the point where it may do more harm than good.

“The original draft would have been one of the strongest plastic bag regulations anywhere,” said Alex Vai, campaigns coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, an all-volunteer environmental group that has been pushing for a statewide ban. The revised bill that came out of committee, he said, “is a slap in the face.”

While the current version of the bill outlaws the use of thin, plastic-film carryout bags commonly found at checkout, its detractors say a loophole would let retailers offer thicker-weight plastic bags to customers. The revised bill also does not require retailers to charge a fee for paper bags. Those fees help retailers cover the cost of paper bags, which typically are more expensive than plastic, advocates say, and they motivate consumers to switch to reusable bags. 

“The idea is to cut back on all single-use bags,” said John Hite, a policy analyst with the Conservation Law Foundation. “When a fee is placed on paper, studies have shown that single-use paper use drops.”


Some bag opponents fear that the bill’s current version — which includes a so-called preemption clause — would effectively undo the tougher ordinances already in place in some Massachusetts communities, several of which have mandatory fees or stronger restrictions on bag thickness. In Boston and Cambridge, for instance, retailers must charge shoppers a 5- or 10-cent fee, respectively, when they choose to use a paper bag. Those fees would no longer be mandatory if the bill passes as written.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, said concerns about the environmental impact of plastic bags have inspired lawmakers in New York, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine to all pass statewide bag bans in recent months. Similar restrictions now exist in 122 cities and towns in Massachusetts, and she said she spent “hundreds of hours” working with local business groups on the terms for a statewide bag ban.

She said her jaw dropped when she saw the committee’s revisions to the bill.

“One hundred and twenty cities and towns have gone ahead and done this on their own,” she said. “Why can’t the Legislature catch up?”

Brian Houghton, government affairs coordinator with the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores statewide, agreed. “Our members are going crazy as they sort out how to comply” with the various bag bans throughout the region, he said. Statewide legislation, he said, is needed quickly.

But proponents of the ban-the-bag efforts have been countered by pressure from the paper and plastic bag industry. Fara Klein, manager of government affairs for the American Forest & Paper Association, said fees on paper bags increase costs for consumers and “discourage the use of products that are recyclable, compostable, made of recycled material, and reusable,” she wrote in an e-mail. “[P]aper is not part of the problem that communities are trying to solve.” 


And the American Progressive Bag Alliance has its own “bag the ban” campaign, paying $60,000 in lobbying fees to Northwind Strategies last year, according to state filings. Its executive director, Matt Seaholm, points to research out of the University of Sydney which has shown that after bag bans go into effect, there’s often a spike in the sale of plastic garbage and dog waste bags. The organization also argues that the resources used to create paper bags have a larger ecological impact than plastic bags. And reusable bags have their impact as well: On its website, the organization cites UK Environmental Agency research that found that cotton or canvas bags need to be used 131 times to account for the carbon output required to create them.

Alexis Bateman, director of MIT’s Responsible Supply Chain Lab, said consumers have a hard time weighing all of these various factors. But she said plastic bag bans are important because they decrease the total amount of plastic in our ecosystem and help shift long-term consumer habits away from single-use items, “even if at this point we’re seeing a number of unintended consequences.”

Ehrlich said she was disappointed by the revisions to the bill, particularly as she’s watched bag bans pass in neighboring states. “Our local communities have sent a really strong message that they want something done about this,” she said. “They’re coming from places where people are actually pulling plastic bags out of clogged sewer grates or going to beach cleanups or just seeing the impact that it’s having on marine life.”


Eldridge sits on the environment committee and voted against the bill’s revisions. “The challenge has always been that there are some legislators that see the 10-cent bag fee as a tax and it would somehow be a financial burden, and I strongly disagree with that,” he said. And with the preemption clause, he said, “You’re literally telling a Boston or another city that instituted a fee that now they’re going to move backwards.”

Both lawmakers said they would push the committee to consider revisions to the bill.

Representative Smitty Pignatelli, who chairs the committee, said he “respectfully disagrees” with the concerns of his colleagues and the antibag constituent groups who now oppose the bill. The legislation, he said, creates “consistency throughout the Commonwealth and a level playing field” for retailers, who he pointed out, can still choose to implement bag fees on their own. And the law empowers the Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules and guidelines for restrictions going forward.

“If you can show me one community who has a better bill than what we put out, I’ll change my mind,” he said. 

In the absence of statewide legislation, some businesses have been implementing bag bans of their own. The chain of Pride convenience stores in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut revealed plans to end plastic bag use in April, and Stop & Shop removed plastic from its stores in Connecticut earlier this month.


And as of Aug. 1, the Springfield-based chain of 70 Big Y grocery stores phased out its use of plastic shopping bags in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“It’s a great opportunity to get out in front of it and do it on our own, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Raanan Hartman, who has led the companywide effort.

On the first day of the ban, shoppers in the Norwood store seemed to take the switch in stride.

“It creates an incentive for people to be more conscientious,” said Carol Cardoni after she loaded her reusable grocery bags in her trunk. “You get used to it.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.