A ban on plastic bags is proposed in Plymouth

Town Meeting to vote on measure next month

Some supermarkets in Plymouth and across the country provide containers for customers to recycle used plastic bags. Some supermarkets in Plymouth and across the country provide containers for customers to recycle used plastic bags. (DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2008

PLYMOUTH - Next month, Town Meeting representatives will have the opportunity to make Plymouth the first community on the East Coast and the third in the nation to ban the use of lightweight, petroleum-based, plastic bags in the town's larger grocery stores and drugstores.

"Plymouth is the first 'Hometown' in America, and we'd like to make it one of the first 'green' towns," said James Sweeney, chairman of the environmental group, Sustainable Plymouth. The organization submitted the measure as a citizens petition.

The wording of the article simply proposes a ban. It would be up to the selectmen to fill in the details, such as when the ban would be implemented and whether there would be fines for noncompliance.

Sweeney said residents are reacting with enthusiasm to the initiative. "Our membership has increased by 50 percent since we announced this," Sweeney said.

But selectmen and the Finance Committee gave the proposal a lukewarm reception during recent presentations, and Sweeney said he plans to return before Town Meeting in an effort to get a positive recommendation.

Town Meeting representatives - who will be doing the voting - appear open to the idea.

William Abbott, the chairman of the Committee of Precinct Chairs, said he will move the article on the Town Meeting floor on June 9. "I think this is a great opportunity to get Plymouth out in front on this issue," Abbott said. "I think it will be very well received by Town Meeting members, since it fits with everything this town is trying to do."

The town's precinct chairs, who reviewed the measure during a recent meeting, were "generally in favor of it," Sweeney said.

The bags being targeted are petroleum-based, lightweight, low-cost and water-resistant. They are widely used by businesses and popular with the public. Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based global research organization with environmental concerns, has long opposed the bags. Americans throw out more than 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year. They end up in landfills, even though they take centuries to decompose, according to a Worldwatch report, and less than 1 percent are recycled. They also clog storm drains, pollute the ocean, harm marine life, and blight the landscape, the report stated.

Last year, San Francisco became the first municipality to ban them. Last week, Malibu, Calif., became the second.

Massachusetts has had its share of initiatives. The Boston City Council, which first considered a ban last summer, is expected to schedule a hearing on the issue, according to David Vittorini, an aide to Councilor Robert Consalvo. Late last month, Sturbridge defeated a ban on plastic bags proposed by high school students.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods Markets, in celebration of Earth Day on April 22, instituted a ban in its stores, including the one in Hingham. The markets offer customers a 5-cent discount for bags they bring with them.

State Senator Brian Joyce, a Milton Democrat, has a bill pending in the Legislature that would charge customers a fee for selecting plastic bags. In the first year, the fee would be 2 cents per bag, but gradually would increase to 15 cents a bag by the seventh year. The bill is expected to be considered in the next few months.

Sweeney has approached store managers in Plymouth and made some calls to corporate headquarters. The town hosts Stop & Shop, Shaw's, and Wal-Mart grocery stores, and Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS drugstores.

Sweeney said the store managers generally have been receptive to the ban. It's been harder to get a commitment at the corporate level.

"Walgreens said they liked the concept but weren't willing to put it in writing where it would become corporate policy," Sweeney said.

Stop & Shop spokesman Rob Keane said officials at company headquarters feel unfairly targeted, since the ban would apply only to larger operations. (Sweeney said Plymouth's ban would apply to stores 35,000 square feet and larger.) Keane said Stop & Shop allows customers to recycle their bags at the store, and pays customers 5 cents for every bag they bring with them and reuse.

Shaw's spokeswoman Judy Chong said Shaw's also recycles plastic bags. "Last year, we recycled 2.4 million pounds of plastic," Chong said. "It was a 39 percent increase over the previous year."

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