Store clerks in town may no longer have to ask, “Paper or plastic?”
The Board of Health last night voted to bring two Town Meeting articles forward that would effectively ban “thin-film, single-use checkout bags” and the use of plastic foam cups and takeout containers from restaurants. These are two issues the board has been talking about for years, according to Todd Belf-Becker, chairman of the board.
The proposed bans would not go into effect until sometime next year if approved at Town Meeting in May.
The two separate proposals are being brought forth by the board itself. The board had previously voted to have town counsel draft the two articles.
Belf-Becker said last night that the plastic foam issue has been talked about for at least five years, and the plastic bag issue has come up more recently. State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, came to the board last year to speak about her proposed legislation to ban such plastic bags statewide.
She proposed a bill last spring that would make Massachusetts the first state to ban retail plastic bags, saying they’ve become an environmental menace, harming beaches, oceans and animal life.
“That wasn’t the first time we talked about it,” Belf-Becker said, “but it was the first time we thought about it seriously.”
Andrew Petty, director of public health, said Nantucket is the oldest town in the state to have a plastic bag ban, and Manchester-by-the-Sea is the newest town. Town Meeting approved a ban in April.
The board debated if the concerns surrounding plastic bags would even be considered a “public health” issue.
“I think there are public health ramifications,” said member Michelle Gottlieb. “I think they are complicated because it is talking about waste reduction and talking about limiting use of materials that are developed with the burning of fossil fuel that contributes to climate change, which has severe impacts on public health.”
Plastic foam containers are not biodegradable, and “once buried in a landfill, they will remain for centuries,” according to the draft bylaw.
The board expressed concerns about possible pushback from voters but decided to move forward with a bylaw change over imposing a town regulation. Any bylaw changes require a Town Meeting vote, while regulations do not.
The board voted 2-1 last night on the plastic bag issue, with member Helaine Hazlett opposed. The vote on a polystyrene — more commonly called Styrofoam — ban was unanimous.
The issue for Hazlett was the timing with other issues in town. She suggested that the town wait to hear about the proposed statewide ban on plastic bags.
“I feel very strongly that we have so much going on ... I don’t think this is the right time to do it,” she said. “I think it is too much too soon.”
Belf-Becker said now is the right time to more forward with such a ban in town.
“It would show the state that more towns and cities are serious about this,” he said.
The bylaw change will give businesses nine months from its effective date to make the changes, Petty said.
“The one concern I have about small businesses right now in town is, given everything with the sewer project, that they are struggling,” Gottlieb said. “We don’t want to do anything that is really going to be tough for them financially.”
In Manchester-by-the-Sea, proponents of the article cited the negative effect bags have on the environment, marine life and the significant amount of barrels of oil used to make the bags. Opponents noted the cost to local businesses, as well as the significant amount of trees used to make paper bags, one alternative to plastic bags.
Officials from Crosby’s, which has locations in both towns, spoke against the ban, saying the store was working on efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags. Paper bags cost 10 cents, while plastic ones are 3 cents.
“It would obviously drive our costs up considerably,” Bob Vello, general manager of Crosby’s Marketplace said before the Manchester vote. Customers are encouraged to use reusable cloth bags as a replacement, he said.
Petty said the board will have to continue to work on the draft article, including coming up with a proposed “fine structure” for the bans.
Gottlieb said the town has been a leader in many public health issues and believes this will prove to be a similar move.
“It is sending a signal,” she said.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.