On Monday, December 18, the Melrose Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to approve the proposed Recyclable and Reusable Bag Ordinance. The new law requires businesses to provide checkout bags that are either a recyclable paper bag or a reusable bag. The new law takes effect July 1, 2018, for larger businesses (more than 8000 square feet of operating space) and October 1, 2018, for smaller businesses (8000 square feet or less).
The goal of the law is to promote reusable bags over single-use bags of any type (either paper or plastic). The Melrose law (and others like it) restricts the use of thin plastic checkout bags because of the many problem they cause. Specifically, plastic bags create litter, jam recycling equipment when improperly placed in curbside bins, require fossil fuels to manufacture, and contribute to plastic pollution on land and in the water. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it breaks down into microparticles over time. These particles have been found in many species of marine life, in soil, and in 94% of U.S. drinking water samples. Reusable bags and recycled paper bags are much better solutions for human health and the environment.
Melrose resident Jeana McNeil led the effort to restrict the use of single-use plastic bags, dubbed the “BYOBag Initiative.” McNeil explains, “Many people are surprised to learn that the average plastic bag is used for only 12 minutes before it is discarded. Only 5% of these bags are recycled. And Americans use an estimated 326 bags per person, every year. Here in Melrose, we use about 9,000,000 plastic bags every year. There’s a huge imbalance in the permanent damage caused by these bags versus the 12 minutes of utility we get out of a bag.”
The law specifically defines the permissible bags to include:
• Recyclable paper bags that are made of at least 40% recycled content and are 100% recyclable.
• Reusable bags, defined as a sewn bag with stitched handles that is specifically designed for multiple reuse and that: 1) can carry 25 pounds; 2) is machine washable or are made of a material that can be cleaned or disinfected 125 times; 3) is made of either polyester, polypropylene, cotton or other natural fiber material; and 4) has a thickness of greater than 4.0 mils.
Only checkout bags provided at the point of sale are affected. Plastic bags used to package a product (produce bags, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, and others) or to prevent or contain moisture are permissible.
The ordinance uses a specific definition of reusable bags to prevent stores from switching to a thicker plastic bag. “Unfortunately, some of the early laws passed had loopholes that allowed stores to just switch to a thicker plastic bag,” McNeil explains, “This leads to more plastic waste instead of less. We learned from this experience to ensure the Melrose ordinance doesn’t permit these thick plastic bags.”
Melrose joins 60 other communities in Massachusetts that, to date, have passed local plastic bag laws. Most recently, on December 17, Boston became the largest city in the state to adopt such a law. The momentum in local laws makes it increasingly likely that the state legislature will pass a statewide law in the next one to two years.
The Melrose Recycling Committee worked for several years in the community to provide information about the problems caused by plastic bags, and ultimately decided to pursue a local ordinance.
McNeil recalls, “As we talked to people in the community, it became clear that there is support for using our laws to limit plastic bags in Melrose, and protect our health and environment. We spent a year on education and outreach about an ordinance. Last December, our volunteer group purchased a license for the award-winning film Bag It, and it still plays on MMTV. From there we met with community groups, had informational tables at community events, and talked to as many people as we could about the issue.”
The Melrose Recycling Committee was especially concerned about whether the senior citizen community would support a plastic bag ordinance. Committee member Trudy MacDonald visited every senior housing complex in the city, giving presentations about the plastic bag problem, showing the film Bag It, and distributing reusable bags. She also hosted a screening of Bag It at the Milano Center. Most seniors she spoke with said they prefer a sturdy reusable bag to a thin plastic checkout bag.
The Recycling Committee advocated for the law to take effect first with larger businesses. McNeil explains “larger businesses like Shaw’s, CVS, Rite-Aid or Walgreens have already implemented these laws in other communities. They can adapt quickly to a new law in Melrose. Smaller businesses may need more time to use up existing bag stock, or to prepare for the change.” The MRC met with the Chamber of Commerce and with small businesses several times this year, most recently at a November 14 informational session to discuss specifics of the proposed ordinance. One question was whether the Melrose law should mandate that businesses charge a small fee to provide paper bag to customers, which is a provision of laws in Cambridge and in cities like San Francisco.
“The business community made it clear they did not want to be required to charge customer for paper bags,” says McNeil. We listened to their viewpoint. We recommended to the Board of Aldermen that the ordinance should not include a fee due to concerns from local businesses.” Ultimately the ordinance received open support from the Chamber of Commerce, Turner’s Seafood, Buckalews, Apple of My Eye, and the HourGlass Gift Gallery. “We’re looking forward to working with businesses to help them use fewer bags. If customers bring their own bag or don’t take a bag that isn’t needed, our local businesses will save money and we’ll reduce bag waste.”
The 6- and 9- month rollout period also gives the Melrose Recycling Committee time to continue to educate residents and businesses about the new law, and to make sure everyone in the community has access to reusable bags. In addition to being at many community events this year, the Recycling Committee will be creating posters to promote the new law and ensure that people understand what it means. They plan to go door-to-door to business to help them make the transition.
“We’re fortunate that other cities have created great resource materials to help with the transition, like fact sheets and sources for compliant checkout bags,” says McNeil. “We’ll reuse those materials here in Melrose.” Some other outreach ideas are a design contest to develop a Melrose reusable bag, events where we collect reusable bags from people who have extras and give them to people who need more, a screening of the film Bag It, and making reusable bags out of t-shirts. “We’re optimistic that Melrose will make a smooth transition. Other communities say that after a few weeks people get used to the new law, and then it becomes the ‘new normal.’”
The Melrose Recycling Committee was pleased to see the ordinance receive strong support in the community. The Board of Aldermen received an overwhelming number of emails in support of the ordinance, and very few in opposition. During public comment at three separate Aldermen meetings where the ordinance was on the agenda, only one Melrose resident spoke in opposition.
Aldermen Mike Zwirko and Mary Beth McAteer Margolis co-sponsored the ordinance. In an addition to support from individual residents, the Board of Aldermen received letters of support from the Melrose Energy Commission, Melrose Conservation Commission, Friends of the Fells, Mass Audubon, Mass Sierra Club, and the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society.