, Salem, MA

April 30, 2013

Our view: Let's have a debate on plastic bags

The Salem News

---- — It took some doing, but a bill banning supermarket plastic bags has made it out of the Legislature’s Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee.

Already, skeptics are lining up against the proposal, the House version of which is sponsored by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead.

“I believe we have to be cautious on how government steps in on any transaction,” said state Rep. Ted Speliotis of Danvers, who as chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Bills in the Third Reading has more say than most in what bills get a full airing before lawmakers and the public.

“I think you have to be careful in mandating your choice on environmental issues,” Speliotis told reporter Alan Burke last week.

Speliotis has a point. But so does Ehrlich, and we think the Legislature needs to take up the issue in earnest and not kill the bill by ignoring it, as it did in the last session. As consumers, and as stewards of the local environment, we deserve better.

The bills — there is also a Senate version — would ban the bags at retail stores 4,000 square feet or larger. The produce and bakery bags used inside grocery stores would still be allowed.

It’s difficult to argue that the ubiquitous plastic bags don’t create environmental problems. They are not biodegradable and are not accepted for recycling. They never go away, and Ehrlich says they harm beaches, ocean and animal life. Large swaths of discarded plastic are floating at sea.

“Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute the ocean for hundreds of years,” Ehrlich said last week. “Anyone who’s attended a beach cleanup knows how much plastic is in the ocean.”

On land, they seem to make up much of the region’s litter problem and clog storm drains.

The Massachusetts Retailers Association, meanwhile, notes that alternatives have problems, as well. Paper bags don’t degrade as fast as most people think, and they require more energy to make and transport than their comparatively lighter plastic counterparts.

Banning the plastic bags “isn’t necessarily a pro-consumer thing to do,” Retailers Association spokesman John Hurst argued last week.

When Manchester-by-the-Sea debated banning the bags from its borders earlier this year, Bob Vello, general manager of Crosby’s Marketplace, noted that the change would add to his store’s costs.

Manchester Selectman Thomas Kehoe voted against the proposal, saying “environmental awareness is not legislated. It’s something that you teach people.” Kehoe said he would rather see supporters of the ban work with businesses on reusing and reducing the number of distributed bags.

Others, reacting to the early success of Ehrlich’s bill, have called for expanded recycling efforts, better education on the bags’ environmental impact and the development of biodegradable bags.

Those efforts may help solve the problem. But they are never going to be discussed if the Legislature doesn’t prove willing to debate the issue in full, with the public’s input. Letting Ehrlich’s bill die, again, serves no one.

What we seem to have here is an acknowledgement on all sides that plastic bags create problems in our environment.

Let’s have a full debate. That’s where compromises are made.