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Plastic bans on the agenda at some Massachusetts town meetings

By: Frank Antosiewicz By: Gayle S. Putrich

April 23, 2013

CONCORD, MASS. — In many Massachusetts communities, bans on plastic products are on the agenda at the annual spring town meetings.

Single-serve PET water bottles, thin film plastic bags and polystyrene cups and food containers are all under fire this year in various towns.

On April 1, Manchester by the Sea, a small coastal community, approved by a voice vote a ban on single-use plastic bags used by retail stores. Like any local bylaw, it still has to be looked over by the state’s attorney general. If approved, it will go into effect July 1.

“We have a huge recycling program in town, but because the recycler does not have a market for [plastic bags], the only place in town that takes them will no longer be able to,” said Town Administrator Wayne Melville.

Melville said the bylaw contains stiff penalties, rising from $50 to $200 a day per violation. With a population of about 5,000, enforcement of the ban will fall to the local police department.  

While some may think banning plastic bags is a new to New England and that the East Coast may be following trendy California’s lead, consider this: the island of Nantucket has had a ban on plastic bags since 1990.

Brookline, a suburb of Boston, banned bags this year at stores bigger than 2,500 square feet. The Massachusetts state legislature also is considering a state-wide bag ban.

Those fighting bag bans say their fight is the same on the East Coast as it is on the West, said Donna Dempsey, spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance.

“The APBA believes bag bans and taxes are bad policy. Whether it’s in Rhode Island, where I testified last week, or California, where our chairman testified, we are fighting junk science and bad facts ... and emotion,” she said.

Emotions can run high and be a factor in New England’s somewhat unique form of direct local government. Since colonial days, local residents gather as a legislative body, approving local operating budgets and passing town ordinances in a more informal manner than is seen in other more bureaucratically oriented parts of the country.

More than bags on the agenda

Concord approved a ban on single-serve PET water bottles in 2012 and then saw a repeal effort fail April 24 this year. According to the Town Clerk’s office, there was a 1 hour and 11 minute discussion prior to the vote. Those who opposed the repeal, won, 687-621, a larger margin than in 2012 when the difference was 37 votes.

“What’s clear is that the town is almost evenly split,” said Concord Town Manager Christopher Whelan.

Health Director Susan Rask, who is in charge of enforcing the bottle ban, said since it went into effect on Jan. 1, there is only one convenience store that is still non-compliant.  A few others have gotten warnings but were compliant on a repeat visit, she said.

Rask said the ban added to the health department’s workload. First, it had to determine who was selling bottled water — about 100 businesses in the town of about 17,000. Then the department had to keep up with inspections.

Whelan admitted some retailers adjusted and some did not. He thought it increased sales of re-useable bottles, forced residents to drink town water, but probably did not change the recycling rate.

“The town has a good record of recycling. Residents recycle about 50 percent of the waste stream,” he said.

Whelan said local schools installed more bubblers and filling stations to help the cause.

Great Barrington has had a ban in effect for polystyrene food containers since 1990.

“We’ve had no significant issues. It’s been in place so long that it is accepted now,” said Mark Pruhenski, Health Agent for Great Barrington.

Pruhenski has been on the job for eight years and said that in dealing with 165 establishments, only about 65 offer some sort of takeout. Some warnings have issued but no fines or enforcement issues have developed.

Solutions included the use of corrugated paper cups and aluminum trays or plastics other than polystyrene.

During the economic downturn in 2008, he said some inns and restaurants had to be reminded of the ban, and in recent times, some lodging chains wanted consistency. But when they saw that the fines could be up to $300 a day for infractions, they complied.

Pruhenski visits most establishments two to three times a year. “Now we keep our eyes open for new polystyrene products,” he said.

PS bans have come up in other communities in the state, including Amherst, Pittsfield and Somerville.