Our Opinion: Plastic bag ban is overdue in city, state

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In keeping with Massachusetts' well-earned reputation as an environmentally conscious state, the Sierra Club reports that 61 cities and towns in the Commonwealth — comprising approximately 30 percent of the state's population — have banned the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags. Last Thursday, the House Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, co-chaired by Rep. Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox, voted overwhelmingly (13-1) to pass a law applying a ban statewide (Eagle, February 3).

Plastic bags have been decried by environmentalists as one of the biggest cost versus benefit losers of the modern world's inventions. The gossamer-thin bags, which are consumed by the billions even in Massachusetts, can't be recycled because they gum up reclamation machinery. They're often used only once to schlep merchandise home from the store before being dumped in the trash, where they take years to degrade. When they do, their chemical components can leach into soil and groundwater. Recycled paper bags, used as a substitute in some jurisdictions, cost more money to make.

One of the Bay State municipalities that does not have a bag ban in place is Pittsfield, in contrast to several other Berkshires towns. Pittsfield's size and commercial activity alone would dictate that such a municipal ban would make an enormous dent in single-use plastic bag usage in the Berkshires, and the Pittsfield Green Commission drafted an ordinance submitted to the City Council in March of 2017. The City Council has since referred the issue to the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee.

The statewide plastic bag ban is supported not just by environmentalists but by the powerful Retailers Association of Massachusetts, whose members are tired of having to adapt to a patchwork of local ordinances, some of which require charging extra for paper bags — or a lack of ordinances, as in the case of Pittsfield, which has been debating the issue for several years. Like the proposed cost-saving new tote system for garbage pickup, however (already proven successful in many other Massachusetts communities as well as in the Berkshires), there is a risk that stalling and hand-wringing by city councilors could prevent passage of this worthy effort.

Should the Legislature pass a statewide ban, and the governor sign it into law, some councilors would be afforded an opportunity to shift blame for those who hate change in any form to Beacon Hill. The state ban, however, could get lost in the shuffle on Beacon Hill regardless of its support, and we urge the City Council to take action on its own.

In the meantime, ban or no ban, a shift in public awareness about the harmful effects of plastic bags has been taking place. Not using plastic does not mean using more paper, which is also bad for the environment. More and more shoppers are collecting and using reusable totes as they realize it's a relatively painless way to do something positive for the environment, and supermarkets should encourage this, as many have been doing. We urge that this trend continue, whether or not the Pittsfield City Council manages to get a ban in the bag.


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