General Government Committee members Paul Hopkins, left, Rebbecca Cohen and Chairman Eric Buddington were seeking more input before continuing the discussion.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee wants more feedback as it considers a ban on single-use plastic bags.
Nearly three dozen people attended last Wednesday's meeting in City Council chambers, and giving views both for and against the proposal. Wide-ranging discussion lasted nearly an hour and led committee members to hold off on any discussion that evening.
"We've heard compelling arguments in several directions," said member Paul Hopkins. "I'm going to need more time to think about this."
The ban proposal had been raised by Committee Chairman Eric Buddington, who said he had been looking into ban put in place by other communities. About 69 or 70 municipalities in Massachusetts have prohibitions on the plastic bags, with some including polystyrene containers.
Both Williamstown and Adams instituted plastic bag bans in recent years and Pittsfield in the process of developing an ordinance to recommend to its City Council.
"I looked specifically at the bans in place in Adams and Williamstown largely in the interest of making things somewhat consistent in the Northern Berkshires," he said. "What I am proposing is to ban the use of non-recyclable and non-biodegradable bags to carry-out merchandise from retail stores in North Adams."
He said the ordinance would also allow stores to sell reusable or biodegradable bags for 10 cents each.
"This has been implemented in other communities and this is to encourage consumers to bring their own bags," Buddington said.
Resident Michael Bedford spoke in support of the effort, recalling how plastic bottle litter had decreased significantly after the imposition of bottle deposits.
The city could look at other models, he said, pointing to Washington, D.C.'s 5 cent bag fee that's used toward environmental efforts and appears to have reduced bag litter, and another company that provides reusable bags with barcodes for automatic offers discounts.
"It's a conditioning thing, it's learning how to change our patterns," he said.
Other said the ban would be an imposition on elderly and low-income residents.
"We live in a plastic world," argued Robert Cardimino. "Without plastic, you'd be riding down the road on a steel frame. ...
"It's anti-business and it doesn't help the seniors."
But Holly Stenson said the city could take the same action that Adams did in instituting its bag ban: create recycled bags to hand out to citizens.
Volunteers in Adams have created and distributed more than 5,000 reusable bags out of plastic feed and bird seed bags. Stenson said volunteers are already working with the UNO Neighborhood Center to make bags here.
There's also the ecological cost of plastic, which can be found in all areas of modern life. Vanda Manzo of North Adams said she had seen studies that showed how much plastic was in our bodies.
"[Scientists] could not do a control study because they could not find people who did not have plastic in their system," she said. "I think that's really serious."
But while switching away from the cheap one-use bags is more inconvenience for consumers, it could be a hefty cost for retailers, especially for small businesses.
"I'm not against recycling, I want better air quality, a better world," said Christina Randall, owner of Village Pizza, but added that business owners were concerned about the cost impact. "I believe that you don't have many restaurant people here because they're afraid of how they're going to be portrayed."
In some cases, there aren't recyclable or biodegradable options for food service containers, she said, although she does use paper bags. But biodegradable containers can cost three to five times that of polystyrene.
"I've been researching this since it went in in Williamstown," Randall said. "I know people in Williamstown who say it's been a great financial burden to them. ...
"Our costs have gone through the roof for everything ... you can only charge so much for a pizza, for a hamburg for a hot dog. ... It's going to make a big impact."
Keith Bona wanted the committee to consider all the aspects of a bag ban, including what types of materials would be banned, what businesses would be affected, what the enforcement mechanism would be and if there would be fines and how those fines would be collected.
He stressed that he was speaking as a business owner — he operates Berkshire Emporium on Main Street — and not as City Council president or on behalf of constituents.
"What is the sole purpose of this ban? Is it to help the environment or is it to stop litter?" he asked. The ban may eliminate single-use bags, he continued but would have no effect on the thousands of products wrapped in plastic that go into the bags.
How would it affect the city's sales of trash bags, and the thousands of single-use plastic ware and trays tossed every day by the school system, Bona asked.
"Government shouldn't impose laws it doesn't follow itself," he said.
Committee member Rebbecca Cohen said she'd like to look more into the city's practices and hear more from businesses. "I think the city has to be held to a standard as well," she said.
The committee said it would consider ways to reach business owners hesitant to speak out, such as using the Chamber of Commerce as a conduit.
"I'm glad we heard from one business but there are a lot of others, especially restaurants. I've been mostly talking to the supermarkets in town," Buddington said. "There are different aspects of this ... there's the carryout bags that this is really focused on but there's also the possibility of styrofoam products which isn't addressed yet but can be on the agenda."
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