By Alan Burke
---- — MARBLEHEAD — Lori Ehrlich has one word for the Massachusetts Legislature — plastic.
More specifically, the Marblehead state representative wants an end to your supermarket’s plastic bags, making an argument that they’ve become an environmental menace, harming beaches, oceans and animal life. Ehrlich is sponsoring a bill that would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to outlaw the bags.
It’s hit some resistance from legislators who suggest that it might be a case of government overreach and retailers who warn that the policy is likely to cause consumers both inconvenience and money.
Ehrlich’s proposal has nonetheless already made progress in the Legislature, winning initial approval from the Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee. That was enough to impress Ipswich Republican Rep. Brad Hill.
“When the environmental committee put it out as quickly as it did,” Hill said, “it has legs. ... I haven’t seen the bill in its totality. But the underlying intent of the bill is a good one. It’s a very good solution to the pollution of our ocean.”
He praised the feature allowing plastic bags if they can be made biodegradable.
It’s the fact that the bags do not break down over time that has caused environmentalists to lament their impact, especially at the seacoast, Ehrlich said.
“Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute the ocean for hundreds of years,” said Ehrlich, who launched her political career after working on environmental causes on the North Shore. “Anyone who’s attended a beach cleanup knows how much plastic is in our ocean.”
Once the bags get into the environment, they can wreak havoc with animal life, she said. Creatures become entangled in the bags, or they can mistake them for food, swallow them and, thinking they’re full, slowly starve to death.
In addition to the huge amounts of plastic being swept onto beaches, Ehrlich said, vast floating dumps of discarded plastic are growing at sea. It’s “the great garbage patch. ... In the Pacific, there is a plastic soup the size of two Texases.”
On land, the bags collect everywhere and can be a menace clogging storm drains. Recycling them is too expensive, Ehrlich said.
Some communities are already acting. Ehrlich ticks off a list of plastic bag bans, including in Manchester-by-the-Sea; Austin, Texas; and Hawaii, where, one by one, each island has independently made the flimsy containers taboo.
So, how should people bring their groceries home?
“Paper bags are fine,” Ehrlich said. “They can be recycled. The best thing you can do is bring your own reusable bags.”
The reaction among her fellow legislators has been encouraging, Ehrlich said. “I’m hearing quite a bit of positive feedback.”
On the other hand, Jon Hurst of the Massachusetts Retailers Association opposes the measure. He suggests that the alternatives to plastic have problems of their own. Reusable cloth bags, he noted, have been found to collect bacteria, including deadly salmonella. Paper bags are more expensive, with the cost passed on to consumers.
“Paper bags don’t degrade very fast,” Hurst said. “Paper bags take a whole lot more energy to make; they require a lot more water and a lot more trees to produce.”
Banning plastic, Hurst continued, “isn’t necessarily a pro-consumer thing to do.”
The plastic bags handed out by the supermarket get a lot of secondary use, in trash barrels, for example, to wrap recyclables or even to attend to pet waste.
As to the masses of plastic garbage in the ocean, Hurst questioned how much of that can be traced to plastic bags.
“In our experience dealing with consumers, they like to have options,” he said. “... If you ban them, you’re forcing people to buy bags.”
Danvers Democratic Rep. Ted Speliotis, a key committee chairman, is likewise skeptical about a statewide government ban.
“I believe we have to be cautious on how government steps in on any transaction,” he said.
In this case, people are already voluntarily opting for paper bags or bringing their own reusable ones.
“People make that choice on a daily basis,” Speliotis said.
He added that he’s willing to discuss the measure with Ehrlich.
“But I think you have to be careful in mandating your choice on environmental issues,” he said.