Environmental groups hail Baker's lift on reusable bags, and plastic bag ban suspension

A customer fills a reusable bag with groceries. Shoppers once again can bring their own reusable bags to grocery stores and pharmacies and no longer will have the option to use single-use plastic bags in places with municipal bans on them.

Shoppers once again can bring their own reusable bags to grocery stores and pharmacies and no longer will have the option to use single-use plastic bags in places with municipal bans on them.

Environmental groups are thrilled. They have been wary of what they say is an opportunistic plastics industry that, early on, used the coronavirus pandemic to stoke fear about the safety of reusable bags in an attempt to kill plastic bag bans.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday rescinded his March 10 emergency order that temporarily lifted the ban on plastic bags supplied in stores to protect the public and essential workers from infection with the coronavirus, back when there was less certainty about the risk of catching the virus from touching surfaces.

The order prevented stores from allowing bags brought from home, nor could stores charge for bags.

Local and statewide environmental and public health groups are hailing the decision.

"We're thrilled, because we've been picking up a lot more plastic bags in our parks and rivers," said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.

And the Sierra Club's Massachusetts Chapter has noted an uptick in reports of significant litter during the pandemic, particularly the single-use bags.

Public health officials now think surfaces present a small risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent update on transmission indicates that it spreads primarily through the infected respiratory droplets emitted during close contact with another person.

Banning plastic bags has been a battle. And it hasn't happened statewide yet. In the Berkshires, Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, Pittsfield, Dalton, Stockbridge and Williamstown are some of the 139 communities in the state that have enacted bans.

Winn said that even the temporary lift on bans threatened a backsliding, and that the rescission of the order is a relief to those who long have fought the plastics industry.

Janet Domenitz of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group is one. For the past decade, PIRG has fought for a statewide ban.

"The problem in any crisis is that there's always danger and there's opportunity," she said. "The national plastics industry immediately swooped in and were lobbying, saying, 'This is the most hygienic thing.'"

She cited a story from The New York Times that reported that the Plastics Industry Association had started a "Bag the Ban" campaign, and referred to reusable bags as "virus laden."

"It did take a little time, but now you have public health experts saying, 'No, this has nothing to do with transmission,'" Domenitz added. "We're much clearer now that plastic bags have nothing to do with keeping ourselves safe."

Indeed, Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project and a senior fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement issued by PIRG that experts worldwide know of no COVID cases linked to any surface, including reusable bags.

Some stores never went back to plastic, despite the temptation.

Guido's Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington and Pittsfield continued to offer paper and boxes — but at a cost to the company.

"We've been going through a ton of paper bags and the boxes which we purchase from the Chelsea Market," said Luke Masiero, front end manager in Great Barrington. The shipment boxes weren't enough for customers now shopping less and buying more on each trip.

Masiero said the stores hadn't received the official OK yet, but they have been "eagerly awaiting" word since there has been some confusion, especially with customers from states with different laws.

Winn, and others, simply found a way to use their own bags during the pandemic.

"I've been taking all my groceries out to my car with the cart and loading them up in the car."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.