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Councilor Melissa Mazzeo shows examples of biodegradable plastic bags that she'd like to see be available.

Pittsfield Council Stalls Plastic Bag Ban Vote

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo first filed the petition nearly six years ago.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A potential ban on single-use plastic bags was again delayed Tuesday night after the City Council appeared gridlocked on a few details.
 
The proposal to eliminate the bags primarily used at the grocery store checkout has been nearly six years in the making since attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo first petitioned for it in conjunction with a ban on styrofoam. The two were uncoupled and in 2015 the City Council passed a ban on Styrofoam food containers.
 
The bag ban, meanwhile, worked its way through the Green Commission and council subcommittee meetings -- including sitting unaddressed on the subcommittee level for some time -- until earlier this month when it received the endorsement from Ordinance and Rules.
 
At the latest crack at getting a vote on it, the City Council debated for about an hour before opting to table a vote until the next meeting.
 
The major point of contention Tuesday was a provision added at the end of the subcommittee meeting to require stores to charge 5 cents for non-reusable bags such as paper or a biodegradable plastic. A vote to remove that provision failed with a 5-5 vote -- with City Council President Peter Marchetti absent.
 
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo sat on the subcommittee and pushed and won an agreement to include a provision allowing biodegradable plastic bags. But she still disagreed with forcing stores to charge for the use of those or for paper bags.
 
Mazzeo received support from Councilors Anthony Simonelli, Kevin Morandi, Christopher Connell, and Donna Todd Rivers but it wasn't enough votes to eliminate the nickel charge. Ward 4 Councilor Connell said the city shouldn't be telling businesses what to do in that way.
 
"Are we really being big brother to our businesses now?" Connell rhetorically asked. 
 
Those in favor said the charge is to further discourage people from using single-use bags in an effort to promote reusable bags.
 
Councilor at Large Earl Persip urged the council to increase the charge. He said the intent isn't to have people simply use paper bags but to move to the more sturdy and reusable fabric bags and that the nickel charge provides the incentive to do so.
 
He added that the large chain stores could afford to give the more expensive paper bags away while the smaller local businesses would be forced to charge -- thus putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Persip said all stores should be on an even playing field.
 
Chairwoman of the Morningside Initiative Kate Lauzon is already prepared to help get reusable bags into residents' hands. She has been in touch with those who run bag-share programs elsewhere and is ready to roll out a program in April at the Tyler Street Lab to give reusable bags to residents.
 
Mazzeo pushed a provision to allow biodegradable plastic bags and praised them as a middle ground toward helping the environment without burdening residents too much.
 
Last March, a representative from GXT Green, a bag manufacturer, presented the product to the council urging for an exception from the ban. The company believes paper bags ultimately are worse for the environment because of the cutting of trees, increased weight and volume in shipping causing more fuel to be used, and in their production. The biodegradable plastic was pitched as a lower cost option for businesses but also more environmentally friendly than the traditional thin plastic bags.
 
"Recyclable paper bags aren't actually good for the environment," Mazzeo said, adding that they aren't useful in the rain and tear easily. 
 
Mazzeo focused on the practical uses of the current grocery bags. She said residents do reuse them in a number of ways like emptying cat litter boxes or as garbage bags. She said plastic bags such as the ones for newspaper delivery or produce aren't used multiple times and aren't covered by the ban. Connell added that people re-using the grocery bags for other purposes means they aren't buying more plastic bags.
 
"They are re-used immensely," Mazzeo said, and the biodegradable plastic bags can serve those uses.
 
Supporters of the ban, however, say the plastic bags pitched as biodegradable aren't as environmentally sound as the companies make them seem. Councilor at Large Peter White said they break into microplastics that still pollute the environment.
 
"We are trying to encourage people to use real reusable bags," White said, later adding, "those still break down into micro-plastics."
 
Overall, Connell's biggest question was, why ban bags when the city's trash is incinerated?
 
The biggest concerns with plastic bags are that they end up in the environment, in landfills and waterways, and don't biodegrade. Connell said those issues are of less concern in Pittsfield because of the incineration process. What is the gain if a bag-ban cost is pushed on to the consumer?
 
"The biggest question from the people saying no is why do we need this?" Connell said. "Do we really need this now since we don't have our waste going to the landfill?"
 
Resident Judy Gitelson spoke at the open microphone period of the meeting and said burning plastic bags is causing a health concern because of what is being released into the air. 
 
"In Pittsfield, it seems like they are doing a lot of harm to human beings because we are burning them in our incinerator," she said.
 
But resident Terry Kinnas disagreed with that, saying the equipment at Covanta prevents release of harmful chemicals into the air. Kinnas said he doesn't believe the ban is needed because of the incineration process and that the ban would just discourage people from coming to Pittsfield.
 
"Because Lenox does something or Adams does something, doesn't mean it is right," Kinnas said. "You give reasons for people not to come here."
 
Lenox and Adams are two of a number of Berkshire County towns with plastic bag bans. In total there are 93 or so cities and towns in Massachusetts with plastic bag bans in place including many towns in Berkshire County. Others in the Berkshires include Dalton, Great Barrington, Lanesborough, Lee, Stockbridge, and Williamstown.
 
The bans hadn't faced much opposition in the county's towns but have struggled to gain support in the two cities. Both Pittsfield and North Adams continue to debate the question.
 
Meanwhile, enough towns statewide have adopted bans to lead Big Y to get rid of plastic bags companywide rather than operating differently in different pockets of the state. On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are undertaking a question of a statewide ban.
 
Mazzeo also took aim at the start date for Pittsfield. Ordinance and Rules implemented a date in September but Mazzeo said that wasn't enough time for companies to make a decision. The council unanimously agreed to push that to Jan. 1, 2020.
 
The 5-5 split vote earlier, however, raised some cause for alarm that the bill wouldn't pass for petitioner Del Gallo. Eventually, Connell suggested tabling the vote until the full council was on hand.
 
Del Gallo has been following the bill since he first filed it. He had a count in his head on how the councilors would vote -- a unanimous vote at the subcommittee level made him confident. He said the petitioners compromised on a number of points with Mazzeo and he felt the bill would receive support from the majority of the council. Mazzeo did vocally recognize that she was able to get some of her particular concerns addressed and voted against tabling it.
 
But that 5-5 vote made Del Gallo wonder if Mazzeo would still be in favor of the bill. Del Gallo still feels that the petition has a better chance of passing with a full council.
 
"I just think most of the council is environmentally friendly ... I think we have the votes," Del Gallo said. "It's been a five and a half year battle. I just want something passed."

Tags: bag ban,   plastics,   

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