Ban the Bag, Boston!

Rickie Harvey

On behalf of my grassroots environmental group, West Roxbury Saves Energy, I have been talking with Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley for a number of years about banning single-use plastic bags from our city, in a desire to join many other major cities across the U.S. and now more than 40 towns in Massachusetts who have taken this important step to help our environment. Last fall Councilor O’Malley and City Council President Michelle Wu took up this issue and in the interim have held four working group sessions to discuss a ban on plastic bags, all of which were open to the public for input and opinions. They also held a City Council hearing, where testimony was given for nearly three hours by the public, elected officials, industry lobbyists, and owners of small businesses. Over the winter Councilors O’Malley and Wu submitted a draft ordinance to the Council, and the next step will be to take a vote at a Council meeting; this vote has not yet been scheduled.

Unfortunately the Mayor of Boston is not in favor of this ordinance. Consequently, the strong possibility of needing enough votes on the City Council to override a veto by Mayor Walsh exists. That means that advocates of this ordinance need to work very hard to get Boston residents to contact all of our City Councilors and explain the importance of the plastic bag ban and convince them to vote in favor. WRSE is part of a coalition of Boston organizations under the umbrella name BYO Bag Boston that is very involved in this grassroots work.

Banning single-use plastic bags in Boston is important for numerous reasons. For one, Boston should be leading on this issue; if Boston takes this stand, we believe the remainder of the state will quickly follow suit. Plastic bags are made from petroleum by-products, and we all know that we need to stop using fossil fuels. Plastic bags are a scourge on our city, found in the trees and on the sidewalks and streets in plentiful numbers; plastic bags are difficult and expensive to recycle properly, and only around 1 to 3 percent find their way to proper recycling. Most plastic bags are used for on average only 12 seconds and then end up in landfills or, worse, the ocean, where they last forever and/or are eaten by sea animals who then die. Economically, plastic bags make no sense: the plastic bag industry collects $4 billion per year in profits from U.S. retailers; the cost of these bags is passed along to us, the consumers. In addition, in Boston many people erroneously place plastic bags in their recycling bins and then the bags get caught in the single-stream sorting machinery, causing delays and costing money to be removed. The fact is that before the late 1970’s no one used plastic bags, and we all got along just fine. Our goal is to promote the widespread use of reusable bags in Boston, setting an example for the rest of the state. We should have done this years ago, as have such cities as San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

In some ways the most important reason to ban plastic bags is because we want to get more people thinking about a better environment and making better choices in their day-to-day routine that will work toward this. We have seen that banning plastic bags provides a gateway to making people mindful of other environmentally sound decisions. Bag laws serve as a daily reminder that our everyday choices affect the planet; they help us to live more deliberately and more sustainably, and that makes banning them the right thing to do.