A legislative committee, meeting behind closed doors, is close to turning a proposed statewide ban on single-use plastic bags into a mutt that not even former advocates of the bill want to take home.

The original bipartisan proposal, backed by almost 100 lawmakers, would phase out single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and convenience stores, require retailers to charge 10 cents each for use of a paper bag, and go a long way toward cutting down the mountains of plastic waste that end up along roadways, in rivers and in the ocean.

Alas, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture stripped the fee, added a provision allowing stores to offer thicker plastic bags – which would do nothing to cut down our creation, use and disposal of plastics – and added a “pre-emption” clause that would override nearly 100 plastic bag bans already passed in cities and towns. 

In 2018, the Earth Day Network, which leads the annual Earth Day every April, started a multiyear effort “mobilizing the world to end plastic pollution,” with a special focus on eliminating single-use plastics. The evidence that people use – and throw away – too much plastic is everywhere. You can see it in the countless bottles, bags and random colorful bits that wash up with a storm tide and in the shredded bags tangled in brush along highways. In the past year, local governments nationwide hit a wall with their municipal recycling programs when China started turning away shipments of recyclables that were contaminated with organic materials or items that made sorting out the recyclable plastic, metal and paper too expensive. The U.S. had become aggressive about recycling programs partly because China had been a willing recipient of this stuff, which was sorted for sale and reuse. But we produce and throw away too much, and China suddenly became very selective. And now, we’re all pretty much left holding the bag.

The flimsy throw-away plastic bags from drug stores, groceries and some retail stores are cheap to produce, which means we use too many, and this type of plastic doesn’t biodegrade, so it lasts forever in the environment. But there are simple alternatives: paper bags, biodregradable bags and, the most logical of all, the sturdy reusable shopping bag we take with us every time. 

People at the local level took action about single-use bags long before it hit the Legislature’s radar. The Sierra Club said that as of this month, 122 Bay State cities and towns, encompassing more than half the state population, regulate single-use plastic bags in some way.

Bans on these single-use bags have already been adopted in Salem, Gloucester, Ipswich, Danvers, Beverly, Rockport, Manchester-by-the-Sea and Marblehead, among many other communities on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley.  

Boston is the biggest East Coast city to ban single-use plastic bags, according to the Sierra Club. Cities from Seattle and Austin, to Mexico City and Paris have banned the bags. Entire countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, Italy, Macedonia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Taiwan, have some type of plastic bag bans in place. 

With the diluting of the proposed statewide ban by this legislative committee, local votes look to be the best way to continue this important process. Local regulations might differ in what types of stores have to comply and whether they can continue to offer plastic bags to customers for a small fee. But this steady incremental progress at the local level is working, and the concept is spreading as average citizens see the wisdom of eliminating ubiquitous plastic bags.

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