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Massachusetts Legislature Again Leaves Plastic Bag Use Up To Cities And Towns

A shopper with a single-use plastic bag

Massachusetts lawmakers have decided once again not to enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags by retail stores.

A $2.4 billion environmental bond bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker will pay for projects all across the state with many focused on mitigating the impacts of climate change.

But a leading environmental group blasted lawmakers for failing to include in the compromise bill a ban on single-use plastic bags.  The Senate had included the ban in its version, but House and Senate negotiators dropped the proposal.

Emily Norton, director the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement the group was very disappointed.  She said a ban on the bags in Massachusetts would demonstrate leadership that other states and countries would follow.

But she noted that more than 80 cities and towns in Massachusetts, acting independently from the state legislature, have moved to eliminate single-use plastic bags, including Boston, where a ban takes effect later this year.

A proposed ordinance to ban retailers in the state’s third-largest city from using plastic bags at the point of sale came before a Springfield City Council committee for a hearing in 2016, but did not advance to the full council for a vote.

" I certainly think it is time the city of Springfield takes a look again at a single-use plastic bag regulation," said  Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman, who as an environmental organizer with Arise for Social Justice lobbied for a proposed plastic bag ban in Springfield. 

He said concerns about the impact on the poor and on mom-and-pop retailers stalled the measure.

"I think community education is going to be the key to this type of regulation," said Lederman. " I think ultimately it will be beneficial for the community and becoming a more sustainable city."

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh signed the plastic bag ordinance despite his often repeated concern about its impact on the poor and people on fixed incomes.

 For shoppers who don’t bring their own reusable bags, the Boston ordinance authorizes retailers to charge a 5-cent fee for a compostable plastic bag, or plain paper bag with handles.

Boston City Councilor Michele Wu disputes the idea the 5-cent fee is a tax on the poor.

" People are already paying for thier checkout bag. It is built into the cost of groceries right now," said Wu.

Environmentalist say single-use plastic bags are almost never recycled and often end up as litter. The Sierra Club estimates that 2 billion bags are distributed annually in Massachusetts.

Legislation to ban the single-use plastic bags has been opposed on Beacon Hill by trade groups representing Massachusetts retailers and the plastics industry.

In 2016, a plastic bag ban was included by the Senate as an amendment to the state budget, but it did not make through the conference committee.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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