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Plastic bag proposal hits snag with Walsh administration

Official says city will not support the proposed legislation

A woman carried her groceries in a plastic bag.
A woman carried her groceries in a plastic bag.(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

A Boston City Council proposal that aims to banish single-use plastic bags at the checkout line ran into a major snag Tuesday, after a top city environmental official said Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration will not support the measure at this time.

The measure seeks a 5-cent fee per bag, as well as thicker bags at supermarkets, pharmacies, and corner stores.

But Boston’s environmental commissioner, Carl Spector, testifying at the final bag ordinance hearing this year, said the city is already actively engaged in efforts to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. The city is also participating in a study with eight other North American cities to explore how to reduce plastic from the waste stream, he added.

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“As you can see, the administration is already taking action and encouraging action to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastic bags,” Spector said, adding that the study’s findings are expected in May. “However, at this time we do not support the proposed ordinance.”

Spector said Boston officials are concerned about the impact the council’s proposal could have on lower-income households and smaller stores. The council is not expected to vote on the bag measure Wednesday, the final session of the year.

Councilor Matt O’Malley, who cosponsored the measure with the council president, Michelle Wu, said it was disconcerting to hear Spector’s comments. He cited data from San Jose, Calif., showing how that city used a similar measure to reduce plastic bags in its storm drain system, rivers, and streets.

“I really think it’s shortsighted to not support or potentially veto a strong piece of legislation because we are going to wait and see what comes out in May,’’ O’Malley said. “We have waited long enough for this. This is a good piece of legislation.”

O’Malley said he and Wu will continue to press the measure next year.

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Tuesday’s hearing was held by the council’s Government Operations Committee and drew speeches from environmental advocates, bag industry representatives, and community activists, who said the council should to take up more pressing matters like violence.

Wu said the bag ordinance might seem small compared to other issues, but she argued that the council has the ability to juggle multiple important issues well. Since this summer there have been three public sessions on the proposal and an online survey that received more than 700 responses.

O’Malley and Wu argued that the thin plastic bags at supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores litter trees, parking lots, and city streets. They urged thicker bags — like the kind often used by bookstores — and the 5-cent fee. The fee, they both argued, aimed to encourage shoppers to reuse their shopping bags.

But retailers said the fee amounted to another tax on cash-strapped consumers and said it would also hurt small businesses.

“We hear a lot about angry voters,” testified Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents 4,000 members. “Small businesses are angry, too.’’

In his testimony, Spector said that in the spring, the city participated in the Boston Zero Waste Summit, which addressed innovative approaches to reducing solid wastes of all types. Summit participants later drafted a set of principles that Spector said will provide the framework for the city’s “zero-waste” approach.

Next year, he added, the city will launch a public planning process to establish solid-waste reduction goals and identify and implement policies to achieve them.

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“We think any specific actions directed toward plastic bags should be considered as part of that comprehensive approach,’’ he said.

Boston is also participating in a waste study with Providence; Cambridge; Seattle; San Francisco; New York City; Surrey, British Columbia; and Portland, Maine.

But O’Malley said that Boston has been “late” on this issue and urged Spector to work with the administration on the matter. Cambridge requires a minimum cost of 10 cents per plastic bag in most stores, according to new regulations that went into effect earlier this year. Brookline instituted a similar ban on disposable plastic bags in 2012.

“Now more than ever it is going to be up to cities, towns, and states to lead on environmental legislation,” he said. “That has never been more clear.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.