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New England News

Pittsfield City Council Votes Amended Bag Ban Into Law

Councilor Melissa Mazzeo displays examples of compostable plastic bags.
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Councilor Melissa Mazzeo displays examples of compostable plastic bags.

Pittsfield, Massachusetts has joined the growing number of communities that have banned single-use plastic bags after a city council vote Tuesday night.

Almost six years ago, Rinaldo Del Gallo submitted a petition to the city of Pittsfield calling for a ban on single-use plastic bags. Now, after a unanimous city council vote to approve a version of that ban, it will become law.

“It was a very long haul, and many years in the making, but I was able to get it done,” he told WAMC.

Del Gallo says that while he’s elated about the passage, the final, amended ban comes with some compromises.

“Do I wish there was a nickel charge? Yes. Do we have some doubts about the biodegradability of that particular bag that they’re allowing? Yes," said Del Gallo. "But it’s a democracy, and you have to take it as it flows.” 

While the final vote on the ban was unanimous, it came after two major concessions to its skeptics on the council. The first compromise removed a compulsory five-cent charge at stores offering approved bags at checkout. Some councilors balked at it, saying it was a governmental overstep into private business, a form of social control, or a burden to the city’s low and fixed-income residents. Councilor Helen Moon said while she was initially concerned about the proposed charge, she couldn’t argue with the results of similar measures.

“The difference between the cans and bottles that do have a five-cent deposit versus water bottles or other such bottles that don’t have a five-cent deposit, there’s a huge difference in the recycling rates," she told the council. "So having that five-cent charge, deposit, vastly changes behavior.”

A 6-5 vote saw the ban’s language change from “shall sell” checkout bags to “may sell” checkout bags, which Council Vice President John Krol characterized as taking the teeth out of the ban.

“It is ultimately not about whether the business wants to spend more in order to provide a free service, it’s about ultimately increasing the number of people who are reusing bags instead of buying bags whether they’re paper or otherwise,” he said.

The other compromise involved what kind of bags will be allowed after the ban is in place. Paper bags are acceptable, as well as compostable plastic bags. Councilor Melissa Mazzeo handed out examples of the latter to her fellow councilors that she said were given to her by a company called One Earth.

“They make bags that completely break down," she said over the rustle of the bags. "They’re compostable. And this is made – and I’d like to pass these around, and I gave them to some family and friends because they sent me a whole bunch of them to the house. I mean, does this not look exactly like a bag that you would get at a grocery store?”

Like Del Gallo – and Councilor Pete White, who also expressed his skepticism with the compostable plastic bags – local environmentalists are not thrilled with the compromise.

“The only pro I see is that it finally got this bag ban passed," said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.

“They’re in theory biodegradable, but there’s really not much ‘bio’ about it," Winn told WAMC. "From a microorganism in the sea’s perspective, it’s still a plastic bag. To have something be truly biodegradable or compostable, it would have to go to a composting or anaerobic digesting facility where it can really be incorporated by the microorganisms and digested by them, and that’s not really what we’ve got here.”

Winn says that while she’s disappointed about that particular issue, the ban is still a win for the Berkshires: “Every time we do any sort of cleanup we find plastic bags throughout the Berkshires, whether it’s in the river, in the trees, along the street.”

While Pittsfield uses an incinerator to burn the waste that actually makes it to trash cans – which councilors like Christopher Connell pointed to as being a preferable fate for plastics as opposed to landfills – Winn says that mode of disposal still poses major environmental and health risks.

“Plastics, according to MIT, emit various dangerous chemicals when they’re burned," said Winn. "It depends on exactly which plastics we’re burning, but the chemicals can include hydrochloric acids, Sulphur dioxide, dioxins, furans, and heavy metals. We don’t want to be breathing that.”

The ban takes effect January 1st, 2020.

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