By Beth Treffeisen and Peter Shanley
The City Council unanimously passed—and the mayor signed—an ordinance that levies a five-cent surcharge for using a thick plastic bag or a paper bag at a store in the city. Thinner plastic bags will be banned under the measure.
But Mayor Martin Walsh’s signature on Dec. 15 came with some reservations.
Walsh said during a press scrum that the Mayor’s Office provided the audio from that his major concern is funding, as the five-cent surcharge is the threshold that businesses can start charging for bags.
“Some companies or stores can charge as much as fifty cents or a dollar for a bag,” he said. “That’s the problem. There are people with fixed income in the city. It passed 11-0 in the Council. I would have preferred if they had worked with us more on it and come up with ideas with who is going to pay for it. It’s going to be passed on to the consumer.”
City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who represents a portion of the Back of the Hill, co-sponsored the measure with City Councilor Michelle Wu and said he was “thrilled” that the mayor signed the ordinance. He said the council worked “very hard” the past year and a half on the measure and had a “robust, open, and transparent process.”
“It’s a very strong and effective bill,” said O’Malley.
The Council passed the measure during a hearing on Nov. 29. The ordinance prohibits single-use carryout bags less than 3.0 mils thick, and imposes a minimum five-cent surcharge on the thicker plastic bags and paper bags.
After failing to pass the ban in 2016, the ordinance was re-introduced in last January. In March, a lengthy hearing and working session discussed the topic further regarding the fees, encouraging the use of reusable bags and raising environmental concerns.
The measure was voted on at the Nov. 29 hearing despite it not being on the scheduled agenda. A 48-hour notice to the public was placed before the hearing.
“We are heading towards a crisis point of a warming planet and weather patterns that will directly impact Boston, and this is one example that is completely in the City’s control,” said Wu at the meeting. “Whether it’s zero or five cents for a thicker plastic bag there is a tremendous cost for doing nothing on any one of these climate initiatives.”
“I have two sons facing a world of tremendous struggles based on how we decide the problems today related to climate change,” she added.
Wu said that this ordinance is fair to small businesses, addresses the needs of public health, and will have a very long, and accessible one-year transition period so that the city can do the outreach right.
“The problem is plastic bags,” said O’Malley at the meeting. “I will admit they are readily convenient, but the convenience does not outweigh the cost.”
It is expected that Boston will use 357 million plastic bags over the course of next year.
“They are used for the average of 12 minutes, but then go on to impact the trees, streets, and drains, which is permanently damaging,” said O’Malley.
The goal of the ordinance is to reduce the use of disposable checkout bags by retail stores in the City of Boston, thereby curbing litter on the streets, protecting marine environment and waterways, reducing greenhouse gas emission, and solid waste.
The ordinance, which will be implemented over the course of 2018, will affect checkout bags, which include any carryout bag provided by a store to a customer at the point of sale.
By the end of 2018, any bag that a retail establishment does provide must be a reusable bag, recycle bag or a compostable plastic bag. Plastic bags will continue to be sold to customers in the next year for five cents per bag. All money that is collected will go straight back to the store to cover the additional cost of the more expensive thicker plastic bags.
Although the fee for using a plastic bag will be five cents, O’Malley noted that taxpayers are already spending money on public workers who help pick up the plastic bags in the gutters, down storm drains, and in public parks and trees.
The recycling company Casella noted at the hearing that thin plastic bags get twisted around their machinery and are not in condition to be recyclable after being mixed in with food products or other waste. This causes them to spend many hours every week untangling plastic bags from gears.
O’Malley stated that there are 20 tons per month of cheap flimsy plastic bags through residential single stream recycling that end up clogging the recycling equipment.
“They are spending hours each day to remove [plastic bags] from the equipment,” said O’Malley. “We are paying as taxpayers for that.”
The ordinance will not include bags, whether plastic or not, in which loose produce or products are placed by a consumer to deliver items to the point of sale, laundry or dry-cleaner bags, newspaper bags, bags used to contain or wrap frozen foods, meat or fish.
Across the state of Massachusetts 59 cities and towns have already implemented a plastic bag ban, including the neighboring towns of Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.
“This will help make an environmental impact, get rid of litter and beautify every neighborhood in Boston,” said O’Malley. “It is good for the environment, good for taxpayers and it’s good for Boston.”