Blowing in the wind: Walsh runs down clock on single-use plastic bag ban

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2017

Gretchen Dietz of West Roxbury held a sticker in favor of Boston’s proposed plastic bag ban.

By Globe Staff 

Will he sign the paper, or take the plastic?

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has until Monday to make a decision on the single-use plastic bag ban that unanimously passed the City Council last month.


He has a few options. The mayor could sign the bill, quietly or with fanfare in a press conference; he could not act on it, and allow it to come into law without his say; or he could veto it, known as a “disapproval” in city rulebook jargon — a rare move, but the mayor has done it before.

Walsh said Friday he continues to review the legislation, though he expressed concern with a fee it would place on residents. He said recently, “I just want to make sure it works for everyone.”

The measure, passed in scores of other communities from Cambridge, to Seattle, to Washington, D.C., would ban single-use plastic bags at checkout lines throughout the city, an effort to cut down on waste and encourage environmentally friendly alternatives to the bags.

Shoppers would be encouraged to use reusable bags, or pay a 5-cent fee for a thicker, compostable plastic bag. Also under the measure, shoppers would be given the option of paying a 5-cent fee for larger paper bags with handles, though smaller paper bags with no handles would be exempt from the ban. The stores would collect the fee.

The measure was among the most closely watched actions the council took in the past year, and it garnered the support of environmental groups and activists citywide, though representatives of the paper and plastic industries opposed it because of the surcharge. Opponents also criticized it as another tax on the poor.


City Councilor Matt O’Malley, the measure’s lead sponsor, reiterated his support for the ban, saying it was the product of a “robust, thorough, and transparent process.”

“We solicited feedback, opinions, and ideas from all points of view and wrote a better law as a result,” he said, noting the unanimous vote.

City Council President Michelle Wu, who cosponsored the measure, also maintained her support, calling it a “consensus that . . . will lead to better outcomes for Boston neighborhoods, in terms of litter reduction, as well as environmental sustainability.”

The timing of the passage of the legislation could also present a quandary for its long-term preservation. The mayor has 15 days under city law to send a veto to the city clerk (in this case, he has until Monday because the deadline falls on a weekend). Under that scenario, the council has to wait at least seven days to reconsider a matter for an override, even if the measure was initially approved by a veto-proof margin.

However, the council held its last meeting of its two-year term on Wednesday and cannot hold any hearings until a new council — with three new members — is sworn in on Inauguration Day, on Jan. 1.

It was not immediately clear if the new council could act to override a veto from a previous term, or if the council would start the process over from the beginning with new members.


It took more than a year for the council to act on and pass the plastic bag ordinance, after holding a series of hearings. If the ordinance becomes law, the city would become the 60th community in Massachusetts to enact such a plastic bag ban. Hundreds of communities across the country have their own bans already in effect.

In his first four years in office, Walsh has not shied away from vetoing a council act, though it is a rare occurrence. He disapproved of two measures, relating to speed limits and City Council salaries, though new drafts of those measures were ultimately passed with his approval.

Walsh’s vetoes nixed at least three other council acts: the creation of a commission in the mayor’s office that would advise him on issues pertaining to black and Latino men; an ordinance that established residency preferences for Boston police and fire recruits; and an ordinance requiring new reporting requirements for energy and water use in certain nonresidential buildings. Those three vetoes occurred in 2014, the mayor’s first year in office.

Leading up to the mayor’s deadline Monday, lobbying and advocating on the plastic bag ordinance continues.

One group, Novolex Inc., a plastic and paper bags manufacturing and recycling company, recently sent the mayor a letter questioning the ban’s constitutionality and urging a veto. The letter was signed by Jack Hart, a lobbyist and former state senator who served with Walsh on Beacon Hill.

But Brad Verter, founder of Mass Green Network, a coalition that tracks and supports plastic bag laws, said Boston’s mirrors the 59 other laws that have been in place already throughout the state. His coalition has collected signatures from 85 community groups calling on Walsh to sign Boston’s ordinance.

“We’ve got labor groups, conservation groups, youth groups, neighborhood groups, faith groups, all to show the mayor that a wide swath of the Boston population is behind this, and that he can be assured there’s wide support,” Verter said.

Milton J Valencia can be reached at
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