Editorial: Setting the pace on banning plastic bags

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Amherst this week joined 40 other communities in the state as pacesetters in banning single-use plastic bags.

Town Meeting last May voted 110-30 to prohibit supermarkets, other retailers and restaurants from distributing bags that are three one-thousandths of an inch thick or less. It is similar to an ordinance adopted by Northampton a year earlier, with the goal of weaning consumers away from disposable bags in favor of reusable ones. Bags wrapped around newspapers and used for produce and meats at supermarkets are not included in the Amherst bylaw.

The transition in Amherst is off to a smooth start, as was the case in Northampton last year. Amherst officials say the business community seems to be taking the ban in stride. No business requested the one-year deferment option in the bylaw, and Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim O’Brien said, “It seems like virtually everybody I’ve talked to has anticipated this in their standard approach to business.”

The Amherst bylaw was crafted 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.

“The main thing for me is plastic bags are going into the recycling stream quite often, because people confuse them for being recyclable,” said Hollerbach, who cited research by Climate Action Network revealing that just one-quarter of 1 percent of all plastic bags are properly recycled in bins at supermarkets.

Hollerbach cautioned that he does not want stores and consumers to adopt paper bags as the only alternative to plastic. “The point of the bylaw is not to use paper, but to encourage consumers to use reusable bags,” he said.

Some business people in Amherst also have pointed to the economic impact of using the more expensive paper bags, and studies which raise questions about whether paper is any more friendly to the environment than plastic.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, an independent, nonprofit, environmental organization in Washington, D.C., an estimated one trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide each year, with 100 billion of those in the United States. Plastic does not biodegrade like paper and is made from petrochemicals containing toxins which can poison animals and people.

However, the manufacturing of paper bags requires about three times more energy than plastic bags, which means the emission of more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which scientists link to climate change.

That’s why proponents of banning plastic bags hope it results in consumers bringing their own reusable bags on shopping trips. Atkins Farms Country Market president Pauline Lannon said the business will use incentives to encourage using reusables at its stores in South and North Amherst.

And the BagShare Project, started by Cummington artist Leni Fried in 2007, may now play a bigger role in Amherst. The project organizes volunteers to sew cloth shopping bags from waste materials including scrap fabric, upholstery samples and malt bags. About 15,000 have been donated to local stores and farmers markets where they are available for borrowing by consumers who forget their own bag. They can then be returned to any BagShare participant, which in Amherst includes the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen at 165 Main St., and the Saturday winter farmers market at Amherst Regional Middle School.

California was the first state to ban plastic bags at large retail stores with legislation enacted in 2014, which was upheld when 52 percent of the voters approved a ballot question in November.

The Massachusetts Senate last year included as a provision in its budget bill a plastic bag ban that would have taken effect in 2018. However, that proposal was removed during negotiations with the House on a final version of the budget.

Until there is a statewide ban in Massachusetts, individual communities will have to exercise leadership by adopting their own prohibitions on plastic bags. We salute Amherst for becoming one of those leaders.