Aiming to ban plastic bags, Pittsfield takes cues from other towns

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PITTSFIELD — The Green Commission, which is considering a recommendation to the City Council on an ordinance banning single-use plastic shopping bags, heard Monday from officials who have gained experience in passing similar bans in Lenox and Lee.

The commission also heard from Rinaldo Del Gallo, who submitted the proposal in 2015. An attorney, Del Gallo told commissioners he would volunteer to draft an ordinance "if you tell me what you want."

The commission undertook a similar review of a Del Gallo proposal to ban polystyrene foam food containers, which was later enacted by the council.

Among questions to consider concerning disposable bags, Del Gallo said, are how to define reusable bags to replace the single-use bags now common at supermarkets, convenience stores and other businesses; how to deal with recyclable paper bags, including what type would qualify, and how to define a reusable shopping bag and what materials would be acceptable in reusable bags.

Another question the commission would have to consider involves the use of plastic bags commonly used for produce in supermarkets, which would be allowed in some form. And the type of enforcement through fines and the city department designated to oversee inspections and enforcement would have to be determined.

Eric Federer, chairman of the Lenox Environmental Committee, and Peter Hoffman, of the Lee Recycling Committee, also addressed the commission.

Federer said he believes Lenox was the first community in Massachusetts to simultaneously pass a polystyrene food container ban and a ban on single-use plastic bags as Board of Health regulations. He said the effort — as well as a similar effort in Lee — required considerable amount of research into the issues involved, and into the experiences of other communities that have enacted bans.

Supporters also had to engage in strategic and political planning to inform the public and the business community, and to mobilize support, Federer said.

He said Lenox and Lee demonstrate two options for enacting a local law, with Lenox allowing the Board of Health to hold hearings on ordinances and then vote to approve them, and Lee passing the ban at its annual town meeting.

The preparation work involved reaching out to the public, holding informational sessions and hearings and showing the film "Bag It," which details the effects of plastic bag litter on waterways and the ocean, for the public and in local schools, Federer said.

He said enacting a ban through the local board of health — in both cases the Tri-Town Board of Health — simplifies the process and allows for flexibility in making any modifications that are later deemed necessary. The board has the authority to hold hearings and then adopt a proposal or an amendment.

In contrast, Hoffman said Lee was forced to go through the town meeting after a selectman and others objected to using the health board option. Because it is more difficult to make amendments when a bylaw is enacted at town meeting, he said extra time was taken to hone the language of the bylaw so that it could hold up for many years.

In the end, the Lee town meeting representatives passed the plastic bags bylaw in May.

In Pittsfield, he added, both the Board of Health and the City Council would have similar flexibility to amend an ordinance in the future without a citywide vote process.

The two men said they asked officials from other communities with bans in place what aspects of the ban would they now wish to amend or drop. One involved a decision to have the police enforce the ban — as opposed to the board of health, as was the case with most of the communities — while another regret involved not providing enough public education or lead time for implementation.

The bans in the two Berkshire towns were passed this year and will take effect in 2017 after a year of lead time.

Federer said in Lenox supporters were surprised at the near total lack of opposition to the bans enacted.

"We had a really easy time of it," he said. "There was no pushback. I think people are really ready for this — the word is getting out."

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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