hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2017


Phasing out the plastic shopping bag?

Pittsfield pursues ban, following lead of five Berkshires towns


Contributing writer



Anna Masiero, left, and Micayla Levesque bag groceries at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, whose Pittsfield store has already stopped offering single-use plastic shopping bags to customers.  Susan Sabino photo

The days of supermarkets packing groceries into single-use plastic shopping bags may be nearing an end in Pittsfield.
The city is considering joining five other communities in Berkshire County that have banned or restricted use of the bags. Meanwhile, legislators in Vermont are weighing proposals to halt or discourage use of the bags, which environmental activists have long viewed as unnecessarily wasteful.

The initial proposal in Pittsfield would prohibit retailers from packing groceries and other items into thin plastic bags that are designed to be used only once. Instead, stores would be required to provide customers with paper or cloth bags -- or reusable plastic ones that meet specific standards for width and materials. Supporters of the change say they want to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags to stores.

Environmentalists around the nation have been pushing for years to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic shopping bags, and the effort has gained momentum in recent years with the proposal or passage of local or state laws limiting use of the bags.

In Massachusetts, about 50 communities have adopted bans or other laws regarding the bags – including the Berkshire County towns of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Williamstown and Adams. Great Barrington was the first to act, banning the bags in 2014. In Lee and Adams, laws passed within the past year are taking effect this spring. Some other communities, including Stockbridge, are considering following suit.


Gauging public opinion
In Pittsfield, a proposed ordinance banning plastic shopping bags was presented to the City Council by citizen petition in 2014. The council referred the proposal to the city’s Green Commission, a board made up of city officials and volunteers who review and recommend environmental policies.

The Green Commission initially was focused on other issues, including a ban on polystyrene cups and food containers that took effect last year. After reviewing the bag proposal, the commission voted in March to recommend an ordinance to the City Council.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer has requested, however, that before formally submitting the proposal to the council, the city conduct an outreach campaign to inform businesses about it – and to collect public input to help guide the city’s handling of the issue.

“Hundreds of businesses would be affected by this, and the mayor thought it was important to reach out to the business community and let them know this is under consideration and hear from them,” said Jim McGrath, a Green Commission member who is also manager of the city’s Parks, Open Space and Natural Resources Program.

McGrath said this outreach process is being led by the city’s Department of Community Development and the Board of Health. The goal is to send out letters to businesses, explaining the proposal, this spring. The city also plans a Web page with details and updates, he added.
After the affected businesses have had a chance to weigh in, McGrath said, the City Council’s ordinance committee will evaluate the proposed law and potentially revise it before sending it to the full council for a vote.

Under the draft ordinance recommended by the Green Commission, supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers and businesses would be prohibited from giving customers single-use, thin-film plastic bags – defined as those with a thickness of less than 4.3 mils, which is 0.0043 inches.

Instead, retailers would be required to provide paper or cloth bags. They could also offer thicker, durable plastic bags with handles that are designed to be reusable.

Merchants could provide acceptable bags for free but would also be allowed to charge customers for them. However, they would be required to offer bags at no charge to low-income customers who are enrolled in public food-assistance programs.

The proposal would continue to allow thin-film plastic to be used for specific purposes, such as for wrapping produce and certain other food items, and for dry cleaning and newspapers.
If the council approved the measure, the ban would not take effect for about a year. This would give retailers time to use up their existing supply of bags – and give the city time to set up procedures for enforcing the ban.


Pushing for change
Rinaldo Del Gallo, a Pittsfield lawyer who filed the 2014 petition to ban plastic shopping bags, also submitted the proposal that led to last year’s ban on polystyrene coffee cups and food containers.

“I was originally inspired by plastic bag ban in Great Barrington,” Del Gallo said.
After his petition in Pittsfield was referred to the city’s Green Commission, Del Gallo, who leads a citizens group called Berkshire Green, became active in pushing similar proposals in other Berkshire County towns.

“I was concerned that the ordinance might get lost in ‘paralysis by analysis’ in Pittsfield,” he said. “I decided to work to introduce it in other communities -- to demonstrate that it is feasible.”
McGrath said the slow progress of the plastic bag ban in Pittsfield does not reflect opposition.
“The reason we haven’t moved at lightning speed on this is because time is not of the essence, and we want to do it right,” he said.

Del Gallo said the process in other towns varied widely. In some, voters backed the idea by large margins at town meetings, while local officials or boards of health took the lead in others.
“The ultimate message is that the majority of the public is in favor of this and will approve it when they have the chance,” he said.

Del Gallo and others who want to ban plastic shopping bags point to the bags’ role in litter and waste. Critics say the bags do not decompose quickly and can become a dangerous form of litter – one that can block sewer and water systems and be harmful or fatal to vegetation and wildlife.
But around the country, banning plastic shopping bags has drawn some opposition. The plastics industry has campaigned in the bags’ defense, and some retailers say banning the bags results in increased costs and inconvenience for consumers.

Some also argue that the cost of more durable bags may wind up adding to the burden on low-income customers. Other opponents criticize bag bans on ideological grounds as an infringement on freedom.


Local and statewide efforts
Those seeking to reduce the use plastic bags have taken different approaches in communities around the nation. While some have pushed for outright bans, others have passed measures such as taxes or fees in an effort to discourage use of disposable bags and encourage recycling and more reusable options.

Others have pushed for action at the state level, rather than relying on a patchwork of local laws.
In 2014, California became the first state to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. But opponents of the ban organized a referendum campaign that delayed implementation until the state’s voters could weigh in. The ban recently went into effect after voters approved it in last year’s election.

Hawaii effectively banned plastic shopping bags statewide when Honolulu County, which covers the largest and most populous of its islands, became the last Hawaiian jurisdiction to prohibit them in 2015.

In Vermont, two bills pending in the Legislature aim to encourage recycling on a statewide basis by requiring retailers to charge a small fee to shoppers for non-reusable or non-compostable bags. Neither bill is expected to come to a vote before this year’s legislative session winds up in May, however.

At least eight states have moved in the opposite direction, though, by passing laws that prohibit localities from banning plastic bags. These states --- Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin – all appear to have modeled their laws on prototypes drafted by the pro-business, conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. All of these states have Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors.


Area towns set precedent
McGrath said he believes people in Pittsfield will be supportive of banning plastic bags.
“Pittsfield has been a leader in energy efficiency and other policies to encourage sustainability, and this has peaked the interest of many people in the community,” he said. “Also, we’re not operating in a vacuum, because several communities around us have already done this.”
He pointed out that the city’s largest supermarkets, including Big Y and Price Chopper, already operate in other Berkshires communities that have banned plastic bags, so they’ve already shown they can adjust to the change.

And at least two discount grocery chains that operate in Pittsfield, Aldi and PriceRite, already sell reusable plastic bags to their customers as part of their corporate strategy of reducing operating expenses to keep down food costs.

Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, the grocer at the southern edge of Pittsfield, voluntarily stopped using plastic bags about three years ago. Dawn Masiero, a member of the family that runs the store, said the change followed the ban on plastic bags in Great Barrington, where Guido’s has a second store.

“When Great Barrington passed its plastic bag ban, we agreed with the goal of encouraging reusable bags, and we decided to make it a company initiative by adopting the same policy in our Pittsfield store,” Masiero said.

Customers at Guido’s can buy a paper bag for 10 cents at the checkout counter. The store also sells reusable cloth and canvas bags.

“We also have cardboard boxes from shipments that come in, and customers can use those to carry their purchases for free,” Masiero said.

She noted that the company recently adopted a new practice of contributing the proceeds from the sale of paper bags to local charitable organizations.

“It has been a positive transition, and our customers in the Pittsfield store have been very supportive of the change,” Masiero said.

The owner of another independent grocery in Pittsfield, Bob Nichols of Harry’s Supermarket, said he does not have strong feelings one way or the other about banning plastic bags.

“It would certainly require adjustments by stores and by customers, but I don’t think it would be a big deal,” Nichols said. “I don’t think people will find it difficult. In fact, about half of my store’s customers already bring in their own bags when they shop here.”