AMHERST — Thin plastic bags that provide a level of convenience for shoppers and diners, but which are also viewed as causing environmental harm, will no longer be allowed in Amherst’s stores and restaurants beginning Sunday.
With Town Meeting in May approving a bylaw that goes into effect Jan. 1 preventing the use of bags that are three-one-thousandths of an inch thick or less, businesses are being forced to turn to biodegradable, reusable and compostable plastic bags, or recyclable paper bags.
But with the change, which mirrors a city ordinance in Northampton that went into effect exactly a year earlier, some business owners anticipate higher costs, which may have to be passed on to consumers, while others are getting ready to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags, an intended side effect of the bylaw.
At both The Pub and Rafter’s restaurants, diners who are getting their food to go will get paper bags with the phrases “Take Out” and “Meals To Go” printed on their sides, instead of the thin plastic bags.
“These (paper) bags are much more expensive than what we’ve been using,” said Pub manager Aaron Jolly, noting that the ban coincides with the state minimum wage rising to $11 per hour.
The restaurants’ supply of the thin plastic bags was used up earlier in December, Jolly said.
A.J. Hastings, which sells clothing, notebooks and assorted other merchandise from its South Pleasant Street storefront, will have added costs as a result, said co-owner Sharon Povinelli.
“It will be more expensive since we will have to buy bags that are thicker,” Povinelli said. “It’s another (way) small businesses in downtown Amherst will have to compete with large businesses around here.”
Povinelli said she understands people want to reduce the amount of plastic, but she is not convinced the ordinance will help, noting that the store will also not be able to reuse the super thin bags that it acquires from other sources.
The petition to ban plastic bags was brought by Kevin Hollerbach, a member of the town’s Recycling and Refuse Management Committee and a graduate student in sustainability science at the University of Massachusetts. Hollerbach said Amherst residents use an estimated 12 million polyethylene bags each year.
The goal of the bylaw is to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags when shopping.
This is what is happening at the Atkins Farms Country Market in South Amherst and its satellite store in the Mill District in North Amherst. At both sites, employees will be promoting the use of reusable bags through incentives, said president Pauline Lannon.
Though many longtime customers will miss the plastic bags, Lannon said she is reluctant to invest in paper bags with handles, which are expensive. The plastic bag ban will mean other challenges, such as finding new containers to hold rotisserie chicken and sweet corn, Lannon said.
Rick Bossie, vice president of store operations for Big Y supermarkets, said the experience in Northampton indicates that a lot of paper bags will be used. These require more hauling time and produce more greenhouse gases during transportation.
“Our opinion is these are as big a concern as plastic,” Bossie said
Povinelli said she supports a reduction in the use of plastic, but is skeptical about this approach. ‘Think beyond the use’
A comprehensive 2011 study by the British environmental agency argued that plastic bags are greener than many alternatives. That study said a paper bag must be used four or more times “to reduce its global warming potential to below” that of conventional plastic bags.
But Susan Waite, waste reduction and recycling coordinator for the city of Northampton, said real change can only be done through these bylaws and ordinances.
“What we’re really trying to do is think beyond the use to the discarding process,” Waite said
Waite, who was Amherst’s recycling coordinator when Amherst banned Styrofoam beginning Jan. 1, 2014, said there have been few issues in implementation of the plastic bag ban in Northampton.
For other businesses, the change is minimal. Cowls Building Supply, for instance, hasn’t used plastic bags in more than a decade, and many other smaller merchants, such as the Toy Box, also don’t use plastic.
Despite concerns from some, Julie Federman, community services and health director, said none have taken advantage of the one-year deferment option. “There have been no requests for deferrals that we have received,” Federman said.
Few complaints have been voiced in the business community. Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim O’Brien, who started his tenure in August, said that most understand Amherst is a forward-thinking town.
“It seems like virtually everybody I’ve talked to has anticipated this in their standard approach to business,” O’Brien said.
A smooth transition is what is hoped for, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s economic development director who is coordinating outreach. “We’re doing our best to get the word out,” Kravitz said.
Kravitz said if any issues are reported, he would likely go out with a health inspector to inform the business owner about alternatives and solutions. The bylaw calls for a warning upon first complaint, with businesses subject to $100-per-day fines if they don’t take corrective action.
Unlike in Great Barrington, where Big Y charges 10 cents per bag, Bossie said no such charge is imposed in Northampton, and won’t be in Amherst. Instead, it will take a similar approach to Atkins.
“We’re trying hard to hold the line on costs and our intent is to sell as many reusable bags as possible,” Bossie said.
But an unintended side effect, Bossie said, is longer lines at checkout, with employees who bag groceries trained in plastic, and taking more time to put items into reusable bags and or paper bags.
Povinelli said she worries that change, especially for visitors, will not be easy.
“With anything it’s going to be a transition, and transitions are usually hard,” Povinelli said.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.