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Cambridge gears up for plastic bag ban

A woman carried her shopping bags on Putnam Avenue in Cambridge. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

By the end of the month, customers shopping in Cambridge stores will no longer be able to rely on those free, flimsy plastic bags at the checkout counter. And the alternatives will come at a price.

The city’s plastic bag ban, which was passed last year by the City Council, goes into effect March 31.

Called the “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance, residents and customers will be forced to forgo plastic bags with handles as an option at supermarkets and other retail locations. Instead, people will either need to bring their own reusable canvas bags, or opt for paper, compostable, or reusable plastic bags that are more than 3 mils thick when hauling groceries and other items home.


The alternative bags provided at the point of sale, however, will cost a minimum of 10 cents for each bag, according to the new regulations.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to reduce the use of disposable checkout bags by retail establishments to protect the marine environment, advance solid waste reduction, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect waterways,” according to a statement on the city’s website. “This ordinance seeks to reduce the number of plastic and paper bags that are being burned, used, discarded and littered, and to promote the use of reusable checkout bags.”

Some bags are exempt from the new ordinance, including “produce bags, laundry, dry-cleaner and newspaper bags, and bags used to wrap meat or frozen foods,” according to the details of the new rules.

The city is recommending that residents and customers use cotton canvas bags when shopping.

Michael Orr, waste reduction program manager at Cambridge’s Department of Public Works, said the ordinance would be enforced by DPW staff members.

“The goal is not to be punitive. We just want to encourage the use of reusable bags,” Orr said. “We are not intending on fining any businesses to start. We want to make sure everyone is in compliance.”


City officials will be doing outreach to businesses and residents via social media and billboards, but are encouraging retailers to place stickers at their respective businesses to remind people of the new ordinance.

Businesses that do not comply — and fail to respond to a series of warnings from the city — could face up to a $300 fine.

Before its passage in March 2015, the move to do away with plastic bags faced some industry opposition.

A plastic bag was stuck in the branches of a tree on Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridge. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Bans and taxes that hurt businesses and consumers are the wrong approach for Cambridge: recycling and recycling education is the solution,” the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents companies that manufacture and recycle plastic bags, told the Globe in a statement.

Others argued that the ban on plastic bags, and pricetag for paper ones, could drive customers out of Cambridge and to supermarkets in bordering cities and towns.

Retailers were given a year to deplete their current plastic bag stock, and can file for exemptions to use up their remaining inventory.

“But I think a lot of retailers have already prepared for this, and have purchased alternative bags,” said Orr.

Orr said businesses have been cooperative in welcoming the new rules.

Cambridge isn’t the first municipality to enact such a ban. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Brookline, and Newton already have plastic bag bans in place.


Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect form of measurement to describe the thickness of the plastic bags.