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Split Council Tables Pittsfield Plastic Bag Ban

A photo of the monitors in the Pittsfield City Hall media room showing Rinaldo Del Gallo addressing the city council.
Josh Landes
Rinaldo Del Gallo - the original plastic bag ban petitioner - addresses the Pittsfield City Council.

Pittsfield’s city council tabled a vote on a plastic bag ban Tuesday night.

Two hours into a meeting with a 41-item agenda, City Council Vice President John Krol – acting in the stead of absent President Peter Marchetti – introduced a report from the Council’s Ordinance and Rules Subcommittee.

“Item number 26 – tonight’s main event! Madame Clerk.”

“A report from the Ordinance and Rules Committee on an ordinance amending the City Code, Chapter 8, Solid Waste Collection and Disposal, banning single-use plastic bags recommending to approve as amended.”

The proposed ban, which local attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo first brought forward more than five years ago, received support from four speakers and criticism from one during the meeting’s opening public comment period. More than 90 Massachusetts communities have similar bans – including Dalton, Lee, Lanesborough, Williamstown, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington in Berkshire County.

“I just don’t understand right now why we’re doing this.”

Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell.

“It’s a feel good initiative. I believe in recycling, but this is a different issue. We incinerate the trash, at least for another three years.”

He said the ban would increase costs for local businesses. Citing the greater weight of paper bags that would likely replace plastic ones, Connell said trucks would have to use more gas to deliver them in bulk and workers compensation claims could rise.

“If their insurance has to go up, where do you think that cost goes? It’s going to go to the consumer. They’re not going to eat it.”

At one point, Connell suggested the ordinance’s stipulation that retailers would have to charge customers at least five cents for using checkout bags was the first step in Pittsfield’s transformation into an authoritarian dystopia.

“That’s ridiculous. Next thing we’re going to do, we’re going to be putting in, ‘we can’t have customers over 6 feet tall.’ I mean, come on. Please. That’s up to them. If they want to eat that cost, let them.”

In December 2018, Boston passed a similar plastic bag ban that includes the five-cent charge to stores offering bags at checkout.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi, after noting his love for the environment, also came out against the ban. He suggested the council focus on a different pollutant.

“The number one thing that I see is not plastic bags on the ground or in areas. I see nip bottles, plastic nip bottles. So to me, that’s something that is more of a problem certainly than plastic bags.”

Defending the usefulness of plastic bags, Morandi raised doubts about the safety of resuable bags.

“I’ve had concerns expressed to me by cashiers and grocery stores that a reusable bag, they consider it a real health risk because they have to put their hands in that bag and put groceries in there and there’s bugs and maggots and everything else.”

New England supermarket chain Big Y – which has five stores in the Berkshires, including one in Pittsfield – recently announced an initiative to stop using plastic bags and shift entirely to reusable bags by 2020.

Defending the ban and the five-cent charge were councilors Pete White and Earl Persip, the latter of whom said it didn’t go far enough.

“The five cents, I think it should actually be, in my opinion, should be a little higher. I think having the stores all charge the same amount kind of evens the playing field, I think that helps them reimburse some of the costs of going to paper bags, and the real purpose of this – like Councilor White said – is to get people to reuse resuable bags. We don’t want people going out and using paper.”

After a narrowly defeated attempt by Councilor Melissa Mazzeo to remove the mandatory five-cent bag fee from the ordinance, a second amendment passed that would move the ban’s implementation from September 2019 to January 2020. Then, the vote was tabled until the council’s next meeting.

Del Gallo, the initial petitioner, was concerned at the 5-5 council vote on removing the five-cent charge. He told reporters that he was surprised at Mazzeo’s opposition, especially after it passed the Ordinance and Rules Subcommittee, which Mazzeo is the vice chair of, unanimously.

“We gave her so much. There were a lot of amendments that we really didn’t want that aren’t the best, so we made a lot of concessions to her.”

Del Gallo added he’s still confident the ban would pass the full council with President Marchetti present on March 12.

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