Our Opinion: Statewide bag ban provides consistency

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As the advertising slogan goes, "A diamond is forever." So is a non-biodegradable plastic bag — and unlike a diamond, it stays around long after the few minutes of its useful half-life have expired. They have been blamed for a multitude of sins, including littering the landscape, polluting the oceans, killing birds and sea creatures and requiring environmentally harmful petrochemicals for their fabrication.

More and more towns and cities in the commonwealth, realizing that saving the environment begins at home, have passed bans on these items with the idea that in the aggregate, their moves have significant impact. Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Adams, Dalton, Williamstown and now Pittsfield join 88 other Bay State municipalities with some kind of ban in place, and according to state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Lynn, more than 40 percent of the state's population lives in one of these communities. State lawmakers have sensed the public's mood, and the Legislature, which failed in two sessions to get a statewide ban passed through the House, is once again taking up the topic.

As with anything that has to do with industry's bottom line, the proposed bag ban has attracted special-interest opponents to what would normally appear to be sensible legislation without a downside. The politically powerful Retailers Association of Massachusetts maintains that a proposed 10-cent surcharge for recycled paper bags (which are more expensive to provide than their plastic counterparts) as an alternative to plastic amounts to a "tax" that benefits no one. The Massachusetts Food Association wants a later implementation date, ostensibly for "education, operational changes, depletion of plastic bag stock and training," as though training a bagger on how to place food items in a paper or reusable cloth bag takes months of instruction.

These arguments hold about as much water as a paper bag in the rain. As far as a tax on shoppers is concerned, the dime paper bag surcharge being suggested at the state level is an incentive for shoppers to provide their own reusable cloth containers. Once they've adapted, the cost disappears. Additionally, industries prefer statewide statutes because they spare them the complication of adhering to a patchwork of local regulations. Then there is the moral argument — one respected locally by Big Y, which issued the following official statement: "Single-use plastic bags can no longer be viewed as a long-term solution for our stores."

There is no reason to believe a statewide plastic bag ban will cause retail prices in Massachusetts to rise. Once the Legislature has crafted a meaningful law, political blowback (if any) will disappear as consumers develop the reusable bag habit, the same way they learned to separate recyclables from their trash. The long-term environmental benefits to the state, in any case, would far outweigh any temporary inconvenience wrought. The Legislature should pass a bag ban — the sooner, the better.

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