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Plastic bags may be banned in Boston

April 27, 2007

By Matt Viser Boston Globe

The Boston City Council wants to ban the use of plastic shopping bags at supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores in the city, saying the ubiquitous bags are a hazard to the environment and a maddening blight of the landscape.

"They end up everywhere," said Councilor Robert Consalvo. "They blow in trees, they're floating in Boston Harbor ... They're an environmental nightmare. We need to rid our city of these plastic bags."

A measure sponsored by Consalvo and endorsed by nine of the council's 12 sitting members seeks a ban on disposable plastic bags at large retail stores. The measure also proposes possibilities for increased recycling of the bags, such as collection bins around the city or curbside pickup.

The proposal Wednesday advanced to the council's Committee on City and Neighborhood Services, where details of the measure are to be ironed out. With three-fourths of the councilors cosponsoring the measure, it is likely have broad support when it returns to the full council for a final vote. Mayor Thomas M. Menino would have to sign the measure for it to become law.

The proposal comes amid growing concern over plastic shopping bags, some 100 billion of which end up in American landfills each year, according to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research agency.

The bags are popular among stores because they are cheap to manufacture, costing less than one cent per bag, and many consumers prefer them because they are easy to carry. But environmentalists have railed against them because they are difficult to recycle and take centuries to decompose in landfills.

San Francisco recently banned the bags, requiring large retailers to use recyclable materials, and a host of other cities, including Phoenix, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Portland, Ore., are considering similar measures.

Meanwhile, state Senator Brian A. Joyce is drawing up plans to file a bill proposing a statewide law that would charge store customers a fee if they elect plastic over other kinds of bags. If the bill passed, the fee would start at 2 cents per bag in 2008 and gradually increase to 15 cents per bag in the seventh year, according to a draft of the plan, which would apply to supermarkets that annually gross more than $1 million. The revenue would go toward the state's recycling programs and toward improving consumer awareness of environmental problems caused by plastic bags.

"It's a measure whose time has come," said Joyce, a Milton Democrat. "People are increasingly aware of the harmful effects things have on the environment."

But industry groups representing supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores are against any legislative restrictions on the bags, saying customers should have a choice. Some said that many consumers reuse the bags, saving them for household jobs such as lining trash cans or picking up after a dog. They also said lawmakers are misdirecting their efforts.

"We're trying to use a hammer to kill a fly," said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents the state's supermarket chains. "You're targeting and making the plastic bags a scapegoat for litter and environmental issues, which is not the ultimate problem. The problem is individuals and their own behavior."

"In our experience, plastic bags are very convenient for folks, and we think folks do like the ease of them and the size," said Bill Rennie, public affairs director of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents 3,000 pharmacies, convenience stores and independent grocers. "We don't want to move to an outright ban. We want to move toward an educational process and get consumers well-educated on the issue."

Several businesses already have subtly been trying to discourage their customers from using disposable plastic bags. IKEA, the home furnishing store, last month began charging US customers 5 cents a bag. As an alternative, the store sells large reusable plastic bags for 59 cents. Within the last year, Shaw's and Stop & Shop have started selling $1 reusable plastic bags, and they have placed bins at the front of their stores so that customers can return plastic bags, which can be used as an ingredient in composite decking.

Neither store would provide the number of paper and plastic bags they use each year.

Menino administration officials Wednesday declined to say whether the mayor would sign a measure banning plastic shopping bags but said it would get serious consideration.

"This is something worth looking at," said James W. Hunt, Menino's chief of environmental and energy services. "The issues are, can the marketplace take care of itself, either through its own initiatives, or through alternatives like corn-based plastics, or is government intervention needed? It's certainly a discussion worth having."

Hunt said the city has been studying ways to cut the number of unrecyclable plastic bags in Boston, examining issues including the financial impact that a ban would have on local stores and what it would cost the city to enforce a ban.

Plastic grocery bags were first introduced in the United States in 1977 and now account for 90 percent of the bags handed out at grocery stores nationwide, according to the Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of plastic bag manufacturers. In 2005, 5.2 percent of plastic bags and sacks were recycled, compared with 21 percent of paper bags and sacks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, the production of paper bags produces more water and air pollution than plastic bags, according to the EPA, which promotes the use of reusable bags. Paper bags also take up more space in landfills.

Boston has a recycling program, which in 2005 recovered 17 percent of the 302,000 tons of waste generated by the city. But the city does not accept plastic bags in its program, instead encouraging residents to take the bags back to the retailer.

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