By now, if you’re living in Cambridge, you’ve probably heard about the new law passed by the City Council that bans plastic shopping bags for all customers. The decision was made in March of 2015 by an 8-1 vote, and went into effect on March 31, 2016. Now, instead of providing plastic bags for customers, businesses are required to charge a small fee of 10 cents for paper ones. The hope is that the plastic bag ban and paper bag fee will help the city cut down on bags being thrown away and encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags.
The city’s waste reduction program manager, Michael Orr, emphasized the initiative’s goal to prompt more people to be environmentally conscious. “There is a little bit of push-back. This is a big change for a lot of people,” he said in an interview with WBUR. “But I think we all kind of need to think and take a step back and reflect about how much waste we are producing as a society and whether that is sustainable.”
Residents will still be able to use produce bags, laundry bags, dry-cleaner and newspaper bags, and bags used for meat or frozen foods. The law requires that in order for a plastic bag to qualify as reusable, it must be at least 3 millimeters thick. It also states that businesses that do not comply could face up to a $300 fine.
According to Orr, adapting to reusable bags will take some adjusting to but will ultimately encourage people to change their behaviors and take responsibility for some of the waste they produce. Once this happens, there will be less solid waste in the city which will lead to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and waste in the local waterways, according to The Boston Globe.
However, not everyone agrees that the bag ban is going to bring positive change. Eric Zorn, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, says that the efforts to prohibit plastic bags in different cities will actually cause “increasing costs to consumers and negative impacts on the environment.” Chicago’s bag ban went into effect on August 1, 2015, and now over six months later, some environmentalists continue to criticize the lack of impact it has had so far. While the flimsy plastic bags are gone, it seems as though they have been replaced by slightly thicker plastic bags that comply with the ordinance. These bags are technically reusable, but it is reported that shoppers rarely bring them back to the store because they either forget or do not mind paying the extra couple of cents to get a new one.
As Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association told the Chicago Tribune, “People have to be incentivized to bring their own bag; otherwise, it’s just too easy for them to take the bag that’s offered to them.”
Another problem with the ban is its lack of attention towards the problems with paper bags. The reality is that paper bags are not an improvement over plastic; they require cutting down trees, using great amounts of water and energy, as well as transportation. By eliminating plastic bags, customers are steered toward using paper which is no better option. It seems as though the Cambridge bag ban law is on the right path, but needs to be tweaked slightly in order to ensure it does not have unintended consequences.
In Cambridge the “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance has been in effect for about a month now, and so far businesses and customers have been cooperative. For people who have been carrying around tote bags or backpacks before the ban, this switch is easy and painless; but for others, it requires a lifestyle change. Either way, the passing of this bag ban is an opportunity to go purchase a new tote or backpack, if you don’t already have one. Once it is in your routine to bring it around, it won’t even be something you’ll have to think about anymore. Give it a try, and encourage others around you to do the same; the Earth will thank you for your small contribution.