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Proposed plastic bag ban takes step forward in Cambridge

Posted by Brock Parker  December 19, 2013 12:51 PM

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Disposable plastic bags may soon be on their way out in Cambridge.

Less than three weeks after a plastic bag ban took effect in Brookline, the Cambridge City Council’s Ordinance Committee voted in favor of a similar law Thursday morning at a hearing at City Hall.

The proposed law, called a plastic bag reduction ordinance, would still need the approval of the full Cambridge City Council after new members have been sworn in January before it could be enacted.

City Councilor Marjorie Decker proposed banning disposable plastic bags in Cambridge in the fall of 2011, said the local law being considered is the result of two years of research and work by the city.

“This is not being done without intensive scrutiny,” said Decker, who was elected as a state representative last year and will not be returning to the city council in January.
Decker is on the ordinance committee that voted in favor of the proposal Thursday and recommended the new law to the incoming council.

The proposal would require that instead of disposable plastic bags retail establishments provide only recyclable paper bags or reuseable bags to customers as they are making a purchase.

Decker said the disposable plastic bags cause pollution, fill up landfills and are harmful to wildlife. She said she realizes it could take time for people to change their everyday behaviors and get used to taking their own reusable bags to a store.

“These are big changes,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Brookline approved its ban on disposable plastic bags in the fall of 2012 but waited until Dec. 1 of this year to enact the local law in an effort to allow local retailers time to adapt to the change. Nantucket has banned plastic bags for years, and the towns of Manchester-by-the-Sea and Great Barrington approved plastic bag bans in the spring.

Cambridge’s ban would allow reusable bags and some paper bags to be used as substitutes for disposable plastic bags if the paper bags contain some recycled material and are 100 percent recyclable. Some durable and reusable plastic bags would also be allowed.

The proposal is drawing some mixed reviews from people in the business community.
Denise Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said some businesses in the square are wondering how the ban would affect them.

“Some of them expressed real concern about the ordinance,” said Jillson, who added that paper bags don’t hold up during rain and bad weather.

Erik Baxstrom, manager of Modern Homebrew Emporium on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, said he supports reducing the number of disposable plastic bags that are used. But Baxstrom said his store sells some cleaning products used for equipment to brew beer at home, and some of the containers may need to be put in plastic bags to prevent leaking.

Phillip Sego, who lives in Cambridge and is a member of environmentalist group the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said plastic bags endanger wildlife and pollute the oceans and the small additional costs of using alternative bags is worth it.

“It’s a small price to pay to ensure the health of the planet,” Sego said.

Lisa Peterson, Cambridge’s deputy city manager, said that if the ban is approved, there would be a period of 180 days before the law would take effect to enable the city to educate retailers about the requirements. The ordinance would also allow retail establishments to file for exemptions of up to six months in some cases where a retail establishment can not find any reasonable alternative to disposable plastic bags. The city will also allow some retailers to file for extensions while they use up the inventories of disposable bags that they have at the time the law would take effect.

City Councilor E. Denise Simmons asked that a special panel also be established that would be able to address any unintended consequences that could arise with the passage of the ban. She said the city set up a similar panel more than a decade ago when it banned smoking in restaurants and bars.

City Councilor David Maher, who chairs the ordinance committee, said that the earliest the City Council could be expected to take up the proposal would be Jan. 13.

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