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Boston is close to banning plastic bags at stores

Audience members applauded after Boston City Council passed a ban on single-use plastic bags.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston is poised to ban single-use plastic bags at checkout lines, putting the city in stride with 59 other communities in Massachusetts and hundreds across the nation, from Cambridge and Brookline, to Seattle and Washington, D.C.

The City Council unanimously approved the ordinance Wednesday, green-lighting a measure that aims to encourage shoppers to use environmentally friendly alternatives such as reusable bags, or pay a 5-cent fee for a thicker, compostable plastic bag. Shoppers would also be given the option of paying a 5-cent fee for larger, paper bags with handles.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has yet to weigh in on the ordinance, and his spokeswoman said Wednesday that he is reviewing it. But even if Walsh vetoes it, the council would likely have enough support to override him based on its 11-0 vote.


The measure would go into effect this time next year — an effort to give shoppers and stores time to prepare.

“The problem is plastic bags,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley, the measure’s lead proponent, before the vote. “These plastic bags do not end up in the dedicated recycling bins at your local Whole Foods or Roche Brothers supermarkets. They end up in our streets, in our gutters, tangled up in our wildlife and our marine ecosystem.”

City Council President Michelle Wu, who cosponsored the measure, called it a ban on an environmental hazard that would serve to ensure “climate justice” beyond Boston.

Critics of the thin plastic bags say they are used for just a short time, from the checkout line to when they are discarded after customers remove items from the bags. They are made with a petroleum-based material, are not biodegradable, and often litter city streets, beaches, drains, and trees. They have been cited in the deaths of sea turtles and shore birds.

Those who oppose the ban say it would create an unnecessary burden on businesses, and others said the 5-cent charge for alternative bags would amount to a new tax on the poor, who cannot afford any cost increases.


O’Malley said that a trillion single plastic bags are used each year worldwide, including 357 million in Boston. He said use of plastic bags has dropped in other communities that have passed bans: Seattle saw a 50 percent reduction in plastic bags in residential garbage; San Diego saw a 72 percent decrease of plastic bag litter.

“We have seen conclusively that these initiatives work,” he said.

Although similar measures have been approved across the state, country, and the world, the passage of a plastic bags ban was never a guarantee in Boston. Walsh opposed it last year, when the council began holding hearings, saying the administration was looking to roll out its own environmental platform.

A similar proposal for a statewide ban is pending before the Legislature.

In Cambridge, where a similar ban went into effect in 2016, residents have embraced the measure, said Laura Stenzel, a retail manager at Savenor’s Market. The store charges customers 10 cents for each paper bag, and also sells reusable canvas bags for $8.75.

“Every now and then somebody is from outside the area that is really surprised by it . . . We take it as a chance to remind them that the city enacted that policy to reduce the amount of landfill,” she said.

Kevin Right, an employee at Kurkman’s Market in Brookline, which banned bags in 2013, said that town does not require that stores charge customers for paper bags, and Kurkman’s provides them free of charge.


That cost is swallowed by the store, he said.

“It costs us more compared to plastic bags, that’s for sure,” he said. “I would not say I’m glad it happened, but it’s happened and we respect it. We look forward to any other option.”

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector, and was founded in 2005 in large part in reaction to bans across the country, decried Wednesday’s decision.

“It is a shame that city councilors pushed through a tax that will hit seniors and low-income families the hardest in the middle of the holiday shopping season,” said Matt Seaholm, the group’s executive director, calling on the mayor to veto the measure.

Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, also criticized the decision to place a fee on paper bags.

“This undermines an environmentally responsible option for carryout shopping bags,” she said, adding that paper is “part of the environmental solution, but Boston is treating it like the problem.”

Environmental groups praised the ban, saying Boston is catching up with progressive laws across the country.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said she recognized the concern that low-income families may have to pay an added fee, but she said many of those families are equally concerned with the litter that is spoiling their neighborhoods.


She called on the city to work with businesses to provide reusable bags to residents before the ban goes into effect.

Environmental groups, from Mass Green Network to the Sierra Club and the grass-roots coalition BYO Bag Boston, cheered the vote. One group of youths who began lobbying for the measure after learning about the downside of plastic bags at a Girl Scouts lecture reached out to councilors before Wednesday’s meeting to seek their support.

“I’m so happy it passed,” said Clare Ablett, 11, of Dorchester, though she added of the legislative process, “It takes a lot longer than you think.”

Globe Correspondent Jacob Carozza contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at