Melrose Enacts Plastic Bag Ordinance

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.


Melrose Moves Closer to Plastic-Bag Law

by George Stubbs

On the evening of December 11, the Melrose Board of Alderman’s Legal and Legislative Matters Committee voted, without any “nays,” to recommend that a proposed ordinance limiting the use and distribution of single-use plastic bags by Melrose merchants come before the full board for a vote in the near future. Between the committee vote and the public comments, it was evident that the ordinance has substantial vote and is on the road to passage.

The Legal and Legislative Matters Committee consists of only five members of the Board of Aldermen, but the full complement of legislators was in attendance, reflecting the importance of the issue to Melrose residents and businesses.

The purpose of the proposed “Ordinance Regarding the Use of Recyclable and Reusable Bags in Melrose” is to “reduce the number of single-use plastic bags that are being used, discarded, and/or littered and to promote the use of Reusable Bags and Recyclable Paper Bags by Retail Establishments in the City of Melrose,” according to the language of the proposal in its latest draft. The new law would require that retailers providing “checkout bags” to customers to issue only recyclable paper bags or reusable bags as defined in the language of the law.

The Legal and Legislative Matters Committee meeting opened with its customary public comment period, during which the majority of people who came forward—residents, businesses owners, and representatives of civic organization—expressed support for the ordinance. One resident voiced opposition, claiming that the proposed ordinance arbitrarily singled out one type of plastic bag, that the business owners she spoke to had no interest in providing paper bags with handles as alternatives, and that the lack of such alternatives would pose special hardships on the elderly.

Several senior citizens came forward, however, to declare that they rely on reusable bags, and that the unavailability of plastic bags at retail establishments would pose no particular hardship. Other speakers pointed to the unsightliness of the plastic bag litter that is evident throughout Melrose, the inconvenience of picking that litter up and of managing the plastic bags they accumulate in their homes, the problems caused at materials recycling facilities when plastic bags are improperly disposed of in recycling bins, and the broad range of environmental and public health issues that arise from the improper disposal of plastic bags and plastic products generally.

Following the closure of the public comment period, essentially all members of the Board of Aldermen took turns declaring their positions on the proposal, with many eloquent statements made in favor. One member expressed concern about the clarity of certain definitions—in particular, what retail establishments are affected, and when and how (how would non-Melrose retailers who shop their wares at the Healthy Melrose and Victorian fairs be affected, for example). Committee Chairman John Tramontozzi agreed that these issues would need to be addressed.

Another member of the board voiced some skepticism, noting—correctly—that the production of reusable bags has its own environmental footprint, and that taking aim at plastic bags would not be a panacea for solving our environmental problems. (This was never an argument made by supporters, the Recycling Committee would stress. Progress comes in increments.)

The general mood, however, was that it the plastic-bag ban could be made to work, and that it is time for Melrose to step up and take its turn with other Massachusetts cities and towns in addressing the impacts of plastics on the environment.

As Melrose moves towards its plastic-bag ban, new research seems to come out on a daily basis showing just how disturbingly harmful those impacts are. Environmental Health News reported on December 12 that researchers at the University of Exeter (U.K.) have generated new data on the mortality of sea turtles as a result entanglement in plastics of various kinds. Not a “plastic bag” problem per se, the data nonetheless shows how deeply our addiction to plastic products and our irresponsible disposal of them penetrates and damages the world around us.

From the EHN report:

“The survey found turtles are being tangled up in lost fishing nets, plastic twine and nylon fishing line, as well as six pack rings from canned drinks, plastic packaging straps, plastic balloon string, kite string, plastic packaging and discarded anchor line and seismic cable. Turtles were also discovered entangled in discarded plastic chairs, wooden crates, weather balloons and boat mooring line.”

The discarded fishing gear, in particular, accounted for most of the turtle entanglements found by the researchers. This is gear that was once made from natural fibers like cotton, juke, and hemp, but is now made from non-degradable compounds such as nylon and polypropylene. Based on the beach strandings they counted, the researchers estimate that more than 1,000 turtles are dying from such entanglements each year. “This is almost certainly a gross under-estimate,” according to Brendan Godley, professor of Conservation Science and director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation and the lead author of the study.

Also on December 12, the Barents Observer, a Norwegian newspaper, reported on high levels of microplastics discovered in blue mussels on Norway’s Barents Sea Coast, an outcome of the ever-increasing amounts of plastic trash littering the coastline. The concentrations of microplastics in blue mussels vary depending on where on the coastline the samples were taken, but Norwegian authorities regard them as disturbingly high.

All this means we have much more to do in our efforts to reduce our reliance on plastics. To think that, 100 years ago, we hardly relied on them at all. A little matter of re-inventing the wheel.

Plastic bag ordinance comes before the Melrose Board of Aldermen

During the Melrose Board of Aldermen meeting on December 4, a proposed ordinance that would limit the distribution and use of thin-film plastic bags in the city was introduced and referred to the Committee on Legal & Legislative Matters for further development and debate. (BYOBag ordinance on 12-4 agenda)

Many thanks to Jeana McNeil, head of the Recycling Committee’s BYOBag Subcommittee, for her hard work in leading the effort to move this legislative proposal forward. We’re almost there!

Jeana describes what happens next:

We’ve been told verbally by two aldermen that the ordinance will be on the agenda on Monday, December 11. This will be confirmed in the next few days, perhaps as soon as tomorrow (December 5).

This committee meeting is the most important meeting for supporters to attend. Public comment is heard at the start of the meeting. The meeting start time is likely to be 7:30 (again TBD, could be 7:45). At this meeting, the committee will discuss/debate the ordinance, and potentially propose amendments. Only a subset of the aldermen are voting members of the Legal & Legislative Committee; however, all aldermen are likely to attend for this matter and participate in the committee discussion.

Please continue to request emails in support of the ordinance, and for people to come and make public comment. Emails should be sent to
Public comment can be as short as or as long (up to maybe 5 minutes) as an individual is comfortable with. Preparing a statement in advance is helpful if folks are nervous.

The board has received about 30 emails so far, which Alderwoman Mary Beth MacAteer-Margolis described as “tons.” Almost all the emails so far have been in support. This is great, but we are anticipating more emails in opposition. It’s very important to keep generating emails of support. It would be great for MRC people to be prepared to make public comment on 12/11.

Issues to be aware of:

Seniors: One resident is very concerned about not forcing seniors to use paper bags or reusable bags. She’s almost guaranteed to speak on 12/11. Please consider speaking to this concern in your email or public comment. I think [Melrose Recycling Committee member] Trudy McDonald has great credibility on this topic since she’s visited all the senior housing centers.

Small businesses: Alderwoman Margolis mentioned (after the meeting tonight) that it is possible small businesses will be exempted from the ordinance altogether (not delayed, completely exempted). She cited concerns about how restaurants use plastic bags for takeout, and it may be hard for them to make substitutes. Does anyone want to take the lead on preparing a letter about restaurants –what you’ve seen in Somerville or Cambridge, local restaurants like The Bangkok or Thai Spice that already don’t use plastic checkout bags? Please let me know so that we can be sure to provide useful information as the aldermen consider any amendments.

We know that Beacon Hill Wine opposes the ordinance, and is likely to write or speak in opposition. If you shop at this store, please mention that you support the ordinance. I’ve heard that the owner (Rebecca) listens to her customers’ opinions.

Support from organizations:

Trudy is working with Mass Green to get Sierra Club and other environmental organizations to email their Melrose-based members. The goal is for local Sierra Club, Mass Audubon, etc. members to email their Aldermen and turn up for the meeting.
If you’re a member of any groups that would endorse or encourage members to support, now is the time to request that support.