UPDATE: As per the discussion below the headline above has been changed. The poll question and the text below as not been changed.
On Wednesday, Newton Aldermen will discuss a proposed ban of plastic bags at a Programs & Services committee meeting. (A Shaw’s grocery store in Barrington RI is serving as a trial store for eliminating plastic bags. and, as most folks know, Whole Foods elimiated plastic from its stores some time ago.) Good idea?
Was “ban” the right word? I mean really, what is the objective other than to release the wolves on certain Alderman?
#254-12 ALD. HESS-MAHAN, SANGIOLO, DANBERG, KALIS, CROSSLEY
proposing an ordinance relating to plastic bag reduction that would add a fee to
single-use plastic and paper bags that are not at least 40% post-consumer
recycled content, at certain retail establishments in Newton. [07/18/12 @4:34
Thanks, Hoss. I went into this fully expecting a s***storm on this topic. At the very least, I would like people to know what they are actually protesting against.
Greg, we are not proposing a ban. The sponsors of this docket item are proposing a “pass through” charge to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags to the store. This charge would apply primarily to large retail and grocery stores. Sample ordinances passed in a number of other communities across the country are included with the meeting agenda.” Kudos to Whole Foods and other stores that have eliminated single use plastic bags. We wish everyone would.
It may be hard to believe, but until recently, the world did without single use plastic bags entirely. Now, there is an enormous plastic bag garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. They are ubiquitous and can be found littering every road, beach and waterway. Many countries have, in fact, banned single use plastic bags. And although some stores allow customers to “recycle” their single use plastic bags, the truth is that many of those bags are never recycled and end up in landfills instead.
These bags are bad for the environment, bad for the flora and fauna, and a sheer nuisance. They should be eliminated, and short of a ban, I believe the best way to reduce their number is through a pass through charge that places a premium on a wasteful, environmentally irresponsible practice.
So, release the hounds.
Ald, Hess-Mahan — How can we see the full proposal including what fee is proposed, and what “certain” retail establishments means? I’m also interested in the specifics of 40% reusable since many high-end retailers use fancy bags with cords and ribbons that could not be put into a recycle bin. Tx
By the way, I forgot to wish a Happy 50th Anniversary of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
Hoss, the amount of the fee, and the retail establishments to which it would apply, will be discussed and deliberated in committee. I would refer you to the sample ordinance and materials attached to the agenda for possible alternatives. Most communities have set the charge at 5 or 10 cents to paper bags that do not contain certain amount of recyclable materials and ban plastic bags altogether. What we are proposing is a charge on all single use bags. Speaking for myself, I would start in the 5-10 cent range. In fact, that is the discount some stores (e.g., Stop & Shop) give when customers bring their own reusable bags. The stores to which such restrictions would apply might include retail stores or supermarkets over 10,000 square feet with $2M annual sales, or some other such metrics.
Greg- can you please correct the headline and story? This is quite a significant difference.
I’m very much in favor of such a measure, though I’d rather it apply to all disposable bags. On a recent business trip to Bethesda, I discovered that this is now the law in MD – you have to pay for bags. I think it’s a very reasonable way to encourage people to reuse bags or minimize the number they use (it’s amazing to me how many plastic bags some stores use and how much unnecessary double-bagging.)
Ald Hess Mahan — If your able to address two more questions,
(1) Were the proposers of this approached by residents, or is this something other than resident advocating?
(2) This proposal is very specific; was it modeled from another community? Which?
Yes we were approached by Newton residents who are members of Green Decade and the League of Women Voters.
The model ordinance has been used in a number of California communities. We adapted it to Newton as best we could.
U r welcome
Ald Hess-Mahan — this link has a detailed study which is a great proof of concept> http://tinyurl.com/SF-bags
Thanks, Hoss. You are making me believe in crowdsourcing.
The plastics industry has committed to using 40% recyclable bags by 2015. So this ordinance will likely be irrelevant in a couple of years.
Therefore, I think the City’s efforts should be better focused on education and encouraging the recycling of these plastic bags. More receptacles should be available to deposit the bags – it shouldn’t be so hard to find plastic bag recycle bins. Given the dearth of plastic bag recycling bins, I’m sure most people don’t even think plastic bags are recyclable at all. Also, Newton residents surely bring in plastic bags from outside the city as well – shouldn’t we just be focused on recycling the bags regardless of origin?
The ordinance as described in the above agenda is also directed at paper bags too. I’m not sure why that is. It also makes Newton residents pay for the procurement choices of the retailer. What if the retailer doesn’t offer the right kind of bag? Most people will get stuck paying the fee and it won’t have any effect on behavior.
Also, when all bags are 40% recyclable, what will happen then? People will still be throwing them out and people who want to recycle will still search in vain for plastic bag recycle bins. So educating and making recycling easier will do more good in the long run than this ordinance in my view.
Although I have done it in the past, it’s always tricky rewriting a headline after there’s already been quite a few comments about it. Even trickier when there’s a poll asking the same question and quite a few votes.
That’s not to say I’m opposed. But what do you think it should say? I’m going to be offline most of the day, which might make changing it later even trickier.
Research has shown time and again that “education” is far less effective at influencing human behavior than behavioral modification through the use of incentives and disincentives. The study Hoss cited to demonstrates that charging a fee for single use plastic bags yields results. If you are aware of studies showing that education yields comparable or superior results, please do let me know. But it appears that the retail and supermarket industries are starting to figure out that they will need to reduce or eliminate single use plastic bags as more communities and states ban or require a charge for their use. Recycled single use plastic bags is not the goal. Reduction and elimination of single use plastic bags is the goal. In the docket item, the 40% applies only to paper bags (I know, because I wrote it).
There is a bill making its way through the state legislature to ban plastic bags in stores, which would address the issue on a statewide basis. I support it because it would level the playing field across the state and have a greater impact on the retail stores and supermarkets that have failed to reduce the use of single use plastic bags. But it may not pass this term or next, so it could be awhile before there are laws in place to reduce or eliminate single use plastic bags statewide. In the meantime, it is important for customers to know that there is a cost associated with using single use plastic bags so that they will “self-reduce” and so stores will find it less desirable to offer them.
It is also important for Newton residents to know that these bags cannot be recycled by depositing them in their green bins. The bags clog the machinery at the recycling plant. Much of what is deposited at stores for recycling is not in fact recycled, as I previously stated. And relying on the plastics industry to eliminate single use plastic bags, which is of course responsible for the problem in the first place and has a vested interest in their continued production, strikes me as not unlike putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
This is not an issue that should be addresses at the local level. It puts our retailers at a disadvantage given the ease with which we can purchase goods in neighboring communities. If adopted, it will make virtually no measurable impact on the problem it is intended to solve.
If the BOA does want to take a stand on the issue they should think about ways of providing incentives rather than disincentives. After all, if elimintating plastic bag is a good idea then shouldn’t the town be willing to pay something for it? Put its money where its mouth is so to write. Given how ban-happy Aldm Hess Mahan has been in the past, such an approach is likely to be found in someone else.
One can only hope that the BOA quickly puts this nonsense to rest quickly and spends their limited time focussing on issues that really impact the residents of Newton: roads, schools, city services, etc. Enough of the symbolic grandstanding at the expense of the people the Board is supposed to be serving,
The U.S. Government Accountability Office did a study of what would help improve recycling levels:
“Recycling coordinators with whom we spoke in selected cities across the country identified several key practices they are using to increase recycling in their cities. The three practices they cited most frequently were (1) making recycling convenient and easy for their residents, (2) offering financial incentives for recycling, such as allowing residents who produce less waste through recycling to use smaller garbage cans and pay lower fees, and (3) conducting public education and outreach. In addition, both recycling coordinators and the recycling literature identified other ways to increase recycling, such as targeting a wide range of materials for recycling and extending recycling programs to the commercial sector.”
The GAO report doesn’t mention “disincentives” like the one proposed as a motivating factor. I don’t contest your main point that punishments work faster than education – I would just question whether that is the type of community in which we want to live. We think of ourselves as a smart community – why wouldn’t education work here?
Is this the correct ordinance language:
“would add a fee to single-use plastic and paper bags that are not at least 40% post-consumer
recycled content” If so, it is not clear to me that the 40% standard applies only to paper.
If the goal is not improved knowledge and increased recycling, but instead simply an outright elimination of paper and plastic bags – that would leave us with just reusable bags as our sole choice. These bags present their own health problems:
So I don’t see this ordinance as being a good one for seniors or young children, who are more susceptible to these kinds of illnesses.
The fact that Anil is saying that the plastics industry is committed to certain goals is proof that this type of ordinance has direct impact on US industry. Ted is even taking Mitt Romney’s advice by applying restrictive legislation at the local level using local standards.
Ted, how about feeding the s***storm by sending a copy of the proposal to CVS and invite them to the debate. I chose CVS since they has such a large Massachusetts presence and have already seen a business impact by our local ordinances so they are more likely to jump into the discussion. We may learn a few things about what industry is already doing in advance of this wave (and it is a wave)
…would be neat if we found that CVS has a new bag ready for a test site — and they saw that Newton would be a great place to try it out. Immediate and positive impact!
@Eric, what can I say? I am a happy guy.
@Anil, you neglect to mention that the GAO also noted that states with “bottle bills” have much higher container recycling rates. More importantly, you miss the point: recycling is not in and of itself a goal; rather, the goal of recycling is to reduce municipal solid waste (MSW).
In the EPA’s fact sheet on reducing MSW, source reduction is at the “top” of the inverted pyramid that EPA recommends for reducing MSW. Reduction of MSW requires source reduction together with promoting recycling. The EPA recommends “pay as you throw” (PAYT), where residents are charged by the volume of trash they throw out, as part of a comprehensive program to reduce the source of MSW and increase recycling. In its fact sheet on MSW reduction, the EPA cites PAYT as an “incentive” for residents to dispose of less MSW and increase their recycling. This 2006 report, prepared for the EPA, concludes that “research has demonstrated that PAYT is the most effective single action that can increase recycling and diversion, and can also be one of the most cost-effective.”
Bottle bills, PAYT and imposing charges for using single use plastic bags all take advantage of market forces in order to reduce MSW and increase recycling. And market forces work. Indeed, Newton uses market forces for source reduction and to increase recycling: the city limits the size of containers and requires residents to purchase bags for excess MSW while at the same time providing unlimited single-stream recycling with no extra charge. And it works.
Hoss, I like the idea of inviting local retailers to the table to discuss. CVS, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop are all local or regional companies with a presence in Newton. Wednesday night is just a “scoping” session to figure out where to go with the docket item. So everything is on the table at this point.
This is a no-brainer.
@Greg – it should say “Should customers have to pay for disposable bags?” The current headline/poll are wrong on multiple points – it doesn’t only address plastic bags and it wouldn’t ban them.
@MGWA: the headline has been changed. I’m leaving the poll question as is since quite a few folks have already voted.
@Ted – would you consider having the charge be for any disposable bags, not just those without 40% recycled content?
Recycling doesn’t solve the problem since it still uses energy and resources – we need people to reuse bags as much as possible. Bringing ones own bag is the norm in much of the rest of the world – no reason it can’t be here.
It’s easy to get used to reusing bags. I always have plastic bags in my purse that I reuse until they break – they take up very little room and weigh next-to-nothing. I also have a few reusable bags that I bought and keep there. I never recycle paper or plastic bags until I’ve gotten multiple uses out of them.
@Greg – Thanks
Oops – in your UPDATE, could you also say that the BoA is not considering a ban, but just charging for bags? You really should correct factual errors.
I’ve added an update but I’m going to stop at that and let the smart people reading this thread figure this out via the comments. Changing the text when there are already 24 comments — and poll votes — can make things more confusing, not less. The comments quickly clarify the item.
But if the goal is to reduce MSW, then the proposed ordinance will do little. Indeed, going by the study (really model simulations) Hoss uncovered, the reduction in litter was 0.6% and in waste was 0.4%. These are trivial amounts of little or n substantive consequence.
So what we basically have is another in a ling line of empty gestures that will serve to only inconvenience a decent chunk of the population. It would be one thing for the BOA to spin its wheels on this stuff if Newton were sitting pretty. We are not. Roads and buildings in disrepair. High school science labs judged to be inadequate. Kindergarten program not what it should be. More than a few empty storefronts in our village centers. Zoning regulations widely known to be in need of revision. And on and on and on.
Yet somehow, with these and all of the other comparable problems facing this city, we have Alderman Hess Mahan occupying the board’s time with trash bags, leaf blowers, and similar distractions. What an embarrassment for our city.
It would be worth seeing if the Maryland law requiring that customers pay for bags is having the desired effect of decreasing the use of disposable bags.
BTW, there’s another reason to support having stores charge for the use of disposable bags. Currently, we all pay for the use of the bags – the cost to the store of supplying them is passed on to all customers in the price of goods purchased. By having customers pay for the bags, those who bring their own bags are no longer paying for bags they don’t use.
Eric Miller — Those are small annual percentages of total waste, you’re right. We’re now at thirty+ years of cumulative mass of small percentages (the “baggage” of our generation). Thirty more years, then thirty more years on that? The cumulative impact is in no way slight.
Let customers ask for bags, instead of offering them.
BTW, it appears that Brookline is actually looking to “BAN” bags.
So, cut down more trees, instead?
If you want to improve the system, have retailers use bags that can be tossed in the recycling bin. Adding administrative cost to stores and requiring customers to collect and return bags is not Pareto optimal, or even close to it.
This is a great idea. It’s “reduce, reuse, recycle”, in that order. Recycling plastic bags is way worse than not using them in the first place. This is about changing habits. Before the invention of plastic people brought their own shopping bags, we can get into that habit again.
Nathan – that’s how I found out about the MD law. I bought a couple of things at CVS and wasn’t offered a bag. When I asked for one, I was told it would cost me. I did without 😉
I’d prefer a complete ban on the plastic bags, in Newton until it can be done statewide. (Where do our state legislative candidates stand on a statewide ban?) And would it be possible to have a higher threshold of recycled content in paper bags in order to avoid a charge? Can they be 90 or 100% recycled content? Are they already?
I have a collection of about half a dozen reusable cloth bags that I keep in the car. So easy, and they’re not prone to tearing like plastic. (And if you join the Newton Tree Conservancy, you get one of our reusable bags, black with green logo 😉 )
Does anyone know what the plastic bags that do get recycled are turned into? I also am skeptical of how much they get recycled. Some must have stuff in them, like receipts or bits of vegetable leaves, that would mess up the batch? Plus it’s a mix of #2 and #4 bags (the kind newspapers come in). Can the different numbers be recycled together, or is someone separating them? Maybe we should have a field trip to follow the bags.
Wait, I’ve got it. Let’s fill the potholes with plastic bags.
See how easy that was? Next problem.
No, but seriously. Why not charge 10 cents for any bag, paper or plastic? Let’s save trees & stop filling landfills at the same time. We can do both. We’re tough. We’re Americans.
I feel that this docket item triggers a very good conversation that needs to be had.
I would NOT favor a ban on plastic bags, but a pass through cost definitely has its merits.
However, I believe Anil’s suggestion regarding spending effort on education and attitude change should definitely be a part of the conversation as well. I was recently speaking with a member of the League of Women Voters and she pointed at the success that education has made in the attitude change toward smoking cigarettes.
I look forward to the discussion.
Yes, education has done a lot to curtail cigarette smoking, but that has been funded by enormous increases in the cigarette tax which itself is a further deterrent. Same with the bottle bill. A few pennies for each decision, and the message gets through.
@ Max, where do the taxes on cigarettes go to exactly? The MA general fund? I think banning in general is bad business (unless it’s “ban the bomb”) and taxing the use of bags that stores choose to supply to aid you in taking away purchases is just foolishly nickel and dime people instead of finding alternate solutions to this ‘problem’. I am against the taxing bottles, paper and plastic at the consumer’s expense.
Janet – it doesn’t have to be a tax. Let the stores keep the nickels people pay for bags. It’s just enough money to be a deterrent without being enough to cause financial hardship.
Janet, you’re right about where the money goes. See this chart: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/what_we_do/state_local/tobacco_settlement/massachusetts
But that doesn’t alter the fact that the higher cost influences the smoke/not smoke decision.
mgwa – I like that idea. It’s way less overhead and much more likely to garner support with retail businesses.and keeps the collected cash in the local businesses.
Municipalities have no ability to collect funds (or tax) on this type of thing. The fees must stay with the retailer. There are a few examples that any municipality can collect funds through an ordinance — most recently with meals and hotels tax.
Now I’m really, really confused. This morning’s Tab says that Alderman are considering how the funds on possible bag fees should be used. I can’t think of an example where funds are collected by a municipality which are not connected to a gov’t service other than civil and criminal fines, and certain taxes. If Newton is considering this a fine then why isn’t the retailer paying the fine out of profits? Frankly, this doesn’t feel like it will pass with the DOR or courts. Is there any precedence here to insert a fine into a commercial transaction and allow it to be a direct pass-through to the customer?
Considering that many Newton customers are not Newton residents, Newton would be imposing it’s standards in fining anyone that takes plastic. This part is a slippery slop. Cities and towns are prohibited from taxing outside of a small set of commercial transactions for very good reasons.
While on the subject of plastic bags, shouldn’t dog owners be required to use biodegradable pet waste bags for cleaning up after their dogs? We do have over 3000 licensed dogs in Newton and, well, that’s a lot of daily waste bags going into the rubbish.