With subcommittee green light, ban on single-use plastic bags heads to full Pittsfield City Council

A cashier bags groceries Monday at the Big Y in Pittsfield. Big Y is phasing out single-use plastic bags and reusable bags are for sale at every checkout.

PITTSFIELD — Single-use plastic bags could soon go by the wayside in Pittsfield.

The City Council's Committee on Ordinances and Rules voted unanimously on Monday to recommend a ban on thin-film plastic bags. The ban, which now goes to the full City Council for a final vote, would allow for reusable and compostable bags.

If approved, the ban would take effect in September.

A drafted ban landed in the committee's lap about a year ago. Since then, councilors have debated whether to make exceptions for certain types of single-use plastic bags and whether to allow the use of biodegradable bags.

The city's Green Commission originally filed the drafted ordinance in 2013. Environmental advocates say single-use plastic bags live on for decades, befouling natural resources, while some business managers worry about the costs associated with the switch.

Councilors used Boston's recently passed city ordinance as a baseline for their discussion. The draft makes exceptions for bags used to hold produce and meats at the grocery store, as well as those used for newspapers and dry cleaning.

Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo pushed her colleagues to consider compostable bags, while Ward 6 Councilor John Krol argued strongly against them.

Mazzeo wanted to reduce plastic and also give people alternative options, while voicing concerns about people using too many paper bags instead.

"We're trying to do a good thing " she said. "But at the same time we're creating another problem."

But Krol said the materials in compostable bags are only slightly better than plastic ones, calling the alternatives "a marketing scheme."

Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and a member of the city's Green Commission, said microplastics found in compostable bags pose "a huge emerging environmental problem."

"It is terrifying that they are now found in all our bodies," Winn wrote in a leader that Chairman Pete White read aloud for the record.

But Mazzeo rebuffed claims lodged against the bags that are supposed to biodegrade. "You're not a scientist and I'm not a scientist," she said to Krol.

She argued the biodegradable options are an important alternative to paper bags. The committee voted to keep the option, with Krol and White dissenting.

To encourage the use of reusable bags, Krol moved to require that stores charge at least five cents per bag offered at the register. That measure passed 3-2, with Mazzeo and Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers in opposition.

Ahead of the meeting, Ward 3 Councilor Nick Caccamo merged the council's previous draft with Boston's in the interest of creating a version all the councilors could agree on. Still, there were disagreements among the councilors as they approved new elements of the ordinance.

"There are trade-offs to this conversation," Caccamo said. "That is politics."

Despite those trade-offs, he said, the ban is a step forward.

"It still achieves a goal," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.