Brookline bans raise concerns and questions

Dunkin’ Donuts has been trying to design a more eco-friendly coffee cup. Some shoppers find plastic bags easier to carry.
Dunkin’ Donuts has been trying to design a more eco-friendly coffee cup. Some shoppers find plastic bags easier to carry.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2010; Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2011

Brookline’s move to ban plastic bags and polystyrene food and beverage containers this week continues to draw mixed reviews, but local businesses are already looking into what they need to do to adapt.

At Michael’s Deli in Coolidge Corner, where hot reubens, brisket, and Thanksgiving sandwiches are on the menu, owner Steven Peljovich said he’s going to have to find an alternative to the polystyrene containers he now uses for take-out orders.

“The Styrofoam does a nice job of keeping the bread from getting soggy, so it’s a matter of finding the right thing that is going to maintain the integrity of our product — that is really my biggest concern,” said Peljovich.

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Brookline selectmen said that by late last week they had received both positive and negative feedback on the bans, approved by Town Meeting Tuesday and Wednesday.

Selectmen chairwoman Betsy Dewitt said she expects more reaction when the bans begin in December 2013, but she said one person had already told her he would never shop in Brookline again, while another praised the town as a leader in its efforts to improve the environment.

“I think people have mixed feelings on this,” she said.

Town Meeting members voted, 142 to 53 in favor of prohibiting supermarkets, some pharmacies, and some other larger retail stores from using disposable polyethylene bags as checkout bags at the point of sale. Plastic bags that are compostable and marine-degradable will be allowed.

Town Meeting also voted, 169 to 27, to prohibit use of disposable polystyrene for take-out food and beverages packaged in food service establishments in the town. Some of the containers are commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as Styrofoam, which is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical Co.  and is not used for any food or coffee containers, according to the company’s website.

Eric Hornfeldt, the manager of Golden Temple restaurant in Brookline’s Washington Square, said the ban on polystyrene will not affect the type of take-out containers the Chinese restaurant uses. But Hornfeldt said he thinks the ban will hurt other businesses, such as Dunkin’ Donuts.

“It’s the town of Brookline, so they are pretty liberal,” Hornfeldt said of the bans. “It’s crazy. They try to regulate everything.”

With five Dunkin’ Donuts in Brookline, Christine Riley, the director of corporate social responsibility for Dunkin’ Brands, urged Town Meeting Tuesday not to pass the polystyrene ban. Riley said the company is committed to finding a more environmentally sustainable alternative to the polystyrene cups it uses, but has not been able to find one.

In a statement after Town Meeting’s vote, Dunkin’ Brands spokeswoman Michelle King said the company has reduced the weight of its polystyrene cups and offers its franchisees a recyclable mug program.

“We will, of course, comply with the Brookline ordinance, even as we continue our search for a cup that keeps drinks hot, hands cool, and is better for the planet,” King said.

Brookline Selectwoman Jesse Mermell said she has received one negative reaction to the bans, but has received mostly positive comments from people in and outside the town who are concerned about the environmental impact of the items.

Some people are still seeking clarification about the bans, however, and Mermell said she’s received multiple inquiries about how people are supposed to dispose of dog waste when the plastic bag ban kicks in.

Brookline Selectman Dick Benka said several people have since asked him if paper bags aren’t more harmful to the environment than plastic bags.

Benka made that argument on the floor of Town Meeting, saying that substituting paper bags will, among other things, result in more trees being cut down to produce the paper.

“I raised the issue,” Benka said. “Nobody really wanted to hear the answer.”

Benka said he also continues to hear concerns about how elderly people prefer to use the plastic bags because they have better handles that make it easier to carry their groceries.

Suzi Robinson, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said the grocery store chain already adheres to bans on plastic bags in Nantucket and in one Connecticut town.

At stores in those communities, Robinson said, Stop & Shop offers paper bags and reusable bags to customers. But the paper bags are substantially more expensive for the company, she said.

“We, of course, uphold and adhere with those regulations,” Robinson said.

Alan Balsam, director of Brookline’s Department of Public Health, said that by Thursday he had received a dozen calls from consumers and business operators asking about the ban, and what alternative products they need to use.

Balsam said the town will be meeting with business operators to discuss what substitutes can be used, and the full year before the bans kick in will help with the transition. Balsam said he will be requesting another part-time employee for the coming year to help with implementation of the bans and other responsibilities recently added to his department.

DeWitt said she’s sure the larger businesses will be able to find ways to accommodate the bans. But DeWitt said she has primarily been concerned with how the bans will affect small businesses, and she’s hoping the town will begin to hear feedback from them.

“I don’t think the impact has really been felt,” DeWitt said. “Nobody is going to notice this until the changes actually happen.”