Editorial: Plastic bag ban a step in right direction

Published: 6/5/2018 9:00:13 AM

We’re not sure when plastic bags became so ubiquitous. We are offered them everywhere because they are cheap, useful and convenient. We find them everywhere — along roadsides, in the oceans, in the woods — because they aren’t biodegradable and because we are bad as a society at disposing of them properly, and because we love convenience.

But at what price?

In recent years, plastic bag bans have started to take hold in cities and towns in western Massachusetts. Northampton and Athol have adopted such bans, for example. According to MassGreen.org, a website that supports plastic bag bans, 79 communities in the state have approved regulations on plastic bags. Now Orange and Greenfield are considering the same, Greenfield for the second time in three years.

Ban advocates cite the damage plastic bags can cause, including the death of aquatic animals through “ingestion and entanglement,” clogging drainage systems, burdening waste collection and recycling facilities and polluting the land. Even when plastic products break down, the plastic persists as smaller particles that gets into the food chain, to unknown effect.

And plastic is made from petroleum and therefore contributes to our love affair with fossil fuels, which hasn’t been kind to the planet, generally.

In Greenfield, new City Councilors Sheila Gilmour and Tim Dolan have proposed an ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags at checkout counters in the city. In 2015 a non-binding referendum failed on a close vote, while voters did back a ban on plastic foam food containers. Despite some misgivings that losing the “Styrofoam option” would hurt food retailers, everyone seems to have adjusted just fine since 2015.

The more extensive plastic bag bans in conservative Athol and liberal Northampton also seem to have gone into effect without causing great harm to stores or their customers.

Greenfield’s proposed ordinance, and Orange’s referendum, would ban retailers from using disposable plastic bags at customer checkout. Instead, bags that are recyclable, compostable or reusable would be allowed, with businesses allowed to charge for the different bags.

There would be fines to ensure compliance. Businesses would be given a year or so to make the transition. The proposed bans, which follow a template forged by Cambridge some years ago, could allow some common sense exemptions for items like meat, produce and newspapers to be wrapped in plastic, according to Gilmour.

The ordinance could take months to go through the City Council, Gilmour said, but she hopes the process can start as early as the City Council’s Appointments and Ordinance Committee meeting June 13.

Orange may decide the issue sooner, at its annual Town Meeting on June 18.

Our plastic bag habit causes environmental pollution, and so it only makes sense to start taking common sense measures to shift to more degradable or reusable replacements like paper sacks, cardboard containers and cloth bags that many of us have already started using at supermarkets.

Climate change and environmental degradation is a global problem for which there is no single nor simple fix. Our love affair with plastic has left lots of it in the environment, which we may never be able to eliminate, but we can take common sense steps to avoid adding to the mess.

And a local plastic bag ban is such a step in the right direction.

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