PEABODY — Some councilors got a look at proposed new rules meant to curb plastic shopping bags at checkout, and subsequently in the environment, in favor of reusable or recyclable ones, during a meeting of the Industrial and Community Development Committee Thursday night.
The draft ordinance, if passed, would ban those flimsy plastic, single-use carryout bags of a certain thickness, less than 5 mils, but it would not ban all forms of plastic bags if they are thick enough and reusable.
Certain plastic bags such as dry cleaner, newspaper and produce bags would still be allowed.
Business that fail to shelve their single-use plastic bags would face a warning for the first violation, with 15 days to correct things. If they fail to comply, retailers face a $100 penalty for the second offense, $200 for the third offense and $300 for any subsequent offenses.
Peabody is the largest community on the North Shore not to have enacted some sort of bag regulations with the state legislature on the verge of coming up with a version of its own. One of the latest bag reduction rules, in Danvers, took effect June 1.
The Mass Green Network's website says plastic bag bans have been passed in 122 Bay State communities, including Beverly, Gloucester, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Newburyport, Rockport, Salem, Swampscott and Topsfield.
"I'm really excited that it has gotten to this place" said Rita Cavicchio, co-chairperson of the group, Green Peabody, the city's official environmental committee. Cavicchio is one of the original proponents of a ban on single-use plastic bags in the city.
"We are the only community on the North Shore that is not doing something," Cavicchio said.
In terms of optics, she said, it looks better for the city to take a stand, despite the impending statewide bag ban, because it shows Peabody cares about the environment. She said Salem's feedback on its bag ban is street litter is down since the city adopted it.
The City Council did not take a 'yes' or 'no' vote on the proposed draft regulations given some late information from Ward 2 Councilor Peter McGinn, who was concerned the proposed rules would still allow thick, plastic bags stamped with the words 'reusable,' such as those offered by Market Basket.
The committee's chairman, Councilor-at-large Tom Gould, asked the draft rules be kept in committee and brought back on Oct. 24.
About four months ago, the council tasked the city's Community Development and Health departments with coming up with a "plastic bag reduction ordinance," said Curt Bellavance, director of Community Development.
"I don't want to say 'ban' because there will still be some plastic bags available for certain uses," Bellavance said. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, officials took language from a dozen different communities to see what might work for Peabody.
Businesses would be given a certain grace period to allow them to go through their stock of bags and get used to the ordinance, Bellavance said. Businesses could also apply for a waiver, on a case-by-case basis, for up to six months to work through their plastic bag inventory.
The city's health department would be in charge of enforcement as this department frequents foods establishments through inspections, though Health Director Sharon Cameron said the department does not have the inspectional resources to inspect places like hardware stores.
Cameron said in discussing the bag rules with other communities, she found it would be important to give sufficient lead time to give retailers a chance to work through their bag inventories. This time would also allow the city to educate consumers on reusable bags.
Councilor-at-large Anne Manning-Martin asked about the inevitable passage of a statewide bag ban, despite one being stalled on Beacon Hill. Manning-Martin wondered whether the state passing its own rules may create a conflict, and open the city up to having the bag rules repealed, or the city being sued over enforcement issues.
Cameron said she was not too concerned about this. Bag bans have withstood legal challenges in other communities. The concern would be if the statewide bag ban was more stringent than Peabody's, it might open up an enforcement problem. But just the opposite is true, so if retailers able to comply with Peabody's ban, would also be able to comply with the state's ban.
Bellavance noted the state's bag rules are before the House Committee on Ways and Means, on which state Rep. Tom Walsh, D-Peabody, sits. The sticking point has been language in the original bill which carried a 10-cent fee for reusable paper bags to avoid a similar litter situation with them. The bill that came out of the committee stripped the fee out.
Bellavance said the state bag rules could be six months away, and at that point, it may be something the city has to repeal or at least change its to match the state's bag ban.
Councilor-at-large Tom Rossignoll asked about the learning curve on a bag reduction law in other communities.
Cameron said the feedback was to make sure to have enough time to educate both consumers and retailers. Chain stores may poised to make the switch, but small, independent stores may struggle. The Big Y supermarket in West Peabody has already eliminated single-use plastic bags.
Concerns from residents in other communities include the cost of reusable bags and the difficulty of managing paper bags that might tear, Cameron said.
"What the other health departments have told me is there has to be a lot of communication with people around issues like that," Cameron said.
Ward 2 Councilor Peter McGinn liked the bag rules, but was concerned that the definition of reusable bags made of durable plastic was too ill defined. He asked if there were other ordinances that defined these plastics "because not all plastic is created equal. Some forms of plastic are more harmful to the environment than others."
Bellavance said ordinances varied in their language, and said they could add more descriptions to the Peabody ordinance. McGinn said Danvers experience with Market Basket was the supermarket offered a thick, plastic "polyethylene" bag that defeats the purpose of the bag rules.
"They stamped on the side of it that it's 'reusable' because it met the definition," McGinn said, "but in fact what you are actually doing is you are getting much more plastic, now."
McGinn offered new language that more narrowly defines the type of plastic acceptable in a reusable bags.
"That's the language that will prevent us from getting those thick plastic, still harmful to the environment bags," McGinn said.
Cameron said she needed more time to study McGinn's proposed changes.
Gould said while the ordinance is still in committee, he wanted to move forward with this as quickly as possible. He asked that Green Peabody help the council on educating consumers and retailers on the need to reduce disposable plastic bags in the environment.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.