Environmental advocates have pushed for a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in Massachusetts for years. Since 2009, state Representative Lori Ehrlich has filed such a bill each legislative session, to no avail. Meanwhile, though, about 120 municipalities in the Commonwealth have gone ahead on their own and passed different ordinances banning the kind of thin, disposable plastic shopping bags once common at grocery stores.
The rationale for such policies has, admittedly, shifted over the years: At first the purpose was to fight litter, since the non-biodegradable bags often end up fouling rivers, parks, and oceans. Now the argument has shifted to climate change. Plastic is derived from petroleum, and reducing plastic bag use could eventually reduce fossil fuel dependence. There’s really no contradiction, though: Both goals are worth pursuing.
But the status quo, where retailers face a hodgepodge of slightly different local rules, is not sustainable. That’s one reason there had been growing momentum to finally enact state legislation that would bring uniformity to the rules, overriding local codes and replacing them with a single state policy. Ehrlich’s bill — co-filed by state Senator Jamie Eldridge — had bipartisan support and was endorsed by almost 100 lawmakers and 200 environmental and community groups.
And yet, as reported in a Globe story Monday, a legislative committee rewrote the bill so thoroughly that it caused some backers to withdraw their support.
The controversy isn’t around banning single-use plastic bags — legislators appear to have reached a broad consensus on that goal. Rather, the question is what sort of bags stores will provide for consumers instead — and how hard the state will push them to abandon single-use bags altogether.
The early legislation mandated that stores offer customers recycled paper bags or reusable bags “made of cloth or other machine-washable fabric,” but specifying that the material couldn’t be plastic. That definition would appear to rule out the kind of thick, reusable plastic bags that some retailers in cities like Boston started offering after the city’s single-use plastic bag went into effect. The initial legislation also mandated that stores charge consumers 10 cents for bags of any kind (stores would get to keep the proceeds of the fee).
The revised bill changed the definition of reusable bags, allowing thick plastic bags to qualify as reusable bags and stores to continue offering them to customers. Critics characterize that as a loophole. As shoppers in Boston have discovered, the thick plastic bags are, indeed, reusable, and allowing them seems like a reasonable change to the legislation.
But where the critics are absolutely right — and where the change to the legislation is absolutely wrong — is the elimination of the 10 cent-fee. Not only would the legislation not require retailers to charge for bags, it would cancel existing fees imposed by municipalities.
Even when they’re just a nickel or a dime, such charges are important: They provide a small nudge to shoppers to bring their own bags. After all, just eliminating thin plastic is only a start. Ultimately, the goal should be to encourage reuse. Biodegradable paper bags are preferable to thin plastic, but they still create an environmental burden. And allowing thick plastic bags without requiring a fee could lead to the worst of all worlds — shoppers just treating the thick bags as single-use bags, and as a result consuming even more plastic.
While it’s appropriate for the Legislature to harmonize local laws, this compromise is not it. A bag fee of at least some nominal amount needs to be restored.
Objections to the charge came from manufacturers of reusable paper or thick plastic bags, who saw the 10 cent charge as unfair, and from critics who viewed it as a regressive tax. But shoppers can avoid the fee by bringing their own bags.
More than 50 percent of the state’s population now live in a community where there’s a ban on single-use carryout plastic bags. It’s fair to give stores and supermarkets who now face a myriad of local regulations some consistency. But the Legislature needs to make sure that any statewide policy also maintains incentives to reduce the number of bags that are used just once and then discarded — not simply change what those bags are made of.