Should Needham ban the retail use of plastic bags?
Plastic Bag Ban Team chair, Green Needham Collaborative
Single-use plastic shopping bags have several attributes that retailers find useful. They are inexpensive, easy to store, and convenient for carrying a variety of products. But the benefits have led to their overuse. An estimated 1 trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year globally. Closer to home, Boston shoppers consume 357 million plastic bags annually. In Needham, just one national chain store goes through 6,000 plastic bags a week, based on a local survey.
Perhaps there would be no debating the value of plastic bags if they were widely recycled. But they are not. Only a small percentage of of such bags are recycled. Once discarded, plastic bags pollute the environment, since they are not biodegradable. They can be found on city streets and in tree branches, and are washed into the ocean, where they can be lethal for marine animals when mistaken for food. Plastic bags also represent a financial obligation for communities. Before voters in California passed the first statewide ban in 2016, they cost taxpayers an estimated $400 million in annual cleanup costs.
A solution to the waste created by plastic bags is to stop using them, a decision 59 Massachusetts cities and towns, California, and about 30 countries have made. The fact that there are alternatives makes the decision easier. Reusable bags are effective and are becoming a more popular choice among shoppers due to their durability, and paper bags are recyclable.
The benefits of eliminating single-use plastic shopping bags are many. Pollution from litter is cut. As an example, volunteers in Monterey County in California found only 43 plastic bags during a recent cleanup as compared to 2,494 in 2010, before the county and state banned them. Non-renewable fossil fuel consumption is reduced, as plastic bags are made from oil and gas. Additionally, plastic bags mistakenly placed with other recyclables can clog sorting machinery. That adds costs, exposes recycling workers to injuries, and can possibly cause an entire load of recyclables to be landfilled or burned.
Therefore, in collaboration and support of local businesses, my group strongly support ending the use of single-use plastic bags in Needham. It is a small step we can take for our environment.
Senior vice president, Massachusetts Food Association
Advocates of plastic bag bans say they are needed to reduce plastic waste. Yet plastic is plastic in whatever form it takes, so if we are going to enact a ban, shouldn’t we include other plastic products? And why not prohibit other materials?
Our association supports a comprehensive statewide approach to deal with not only plastic bags, but all commodities in the waste stream, including glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper. Plastic bags are the “poster child” for waste, but are not the worst culprit in our throwaway society.
When plastic bags are banned, shoppers must choose between reusable and paper bags, and most use paper because they forget their reusable ones. Paper bags arguably create a larger carbon footprint than plastic ones, using more resources to create and recycle and more fuel and trucks to transport. And shoppers who prefer plastic bags can often find stores offering them in the next town.
A particular concern for retailers is that the plastic bag bans enacted in communities such as Wellesley and Newton differ, making it even more cumbersome for stores to comply.
Most food stores take back all plastic bags and wrappings for recycling, including competitor’s bags. If we outlaw plastic bags, these recycling programs would need to be altered. Some advocate switching to compostable or degradable bags, but those bags cannot be recycled with plastic ones.
Our members worked with the state on a first-in-the-nation initiative to curtail usage of paper and plastic bags at more than 380 stores. The state confirmed our industry met its goal of paper and plastic bag reduction by 33 percent in 2010, three years ahead of schedule. These practices continue, with food stores also recycling cardboard, plastics, and shrink wrap. We were the first industry to reduce the amount of its organic waste going into landfills and were well ahead of the curve when it became mandatory in 2014.
If a statewide ban on plastic bags is enacted, it should be fair and workable for all stores. Our association is working towards this goal. We continue to believe the best solution would be a comprehensive approach to all waste, not just plastic bags.
(This is an informal poll, not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.)