High Schoolers Look To Drop A Dime At Town Meeting in Support Of A Paper Bag Fee [Video]

Photo: Belmont High Climate Action Club members (from left) Kate Devitt, Madeline Kitch and Shea Brams.

The brown paper grocery bag: made from renewable resources, is biodegradable, and recyclable. What’s not to love?

But the bags are far from being an environmental panacea as making them puts out CO2 at a rate to be a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

A group of students at Belmont High School is now campaigning to bring a proposal to the annual Town Meeting this May – either as a citizens petition or via the Select Board – to imposed a 10 cent fee on all paper grocery bags with the aim of prompting shoppers to supply their own.

“Our team is working tirelessly to pass this, because big change begins small,” said Kate Devitt, one of the founders of the Climate Action Club at Belmont High School.

“We want to begin reducing carbon emissions locally, and attempt to expand from there; our climate is changing at a rapid pace, and we want to take any measure possible to ensure a livable future for humanity,” said Devitt.

And in Belmont, an area to focus is on the ubiquitous paper bag. There is a misconception, said Devitt, that paper bag as being more climate friendly than the plastic bags they replaced. In reality bag emits three to four times as much carbon to be manufactured compared to a polyethylene plastic bag.

“To be clear, we are not suggesting a return to plastic bags, as we are pleased that a plastic bag ban has been instated in Belmont. We want to incentive the use of reusable bags ,” said Devitt.

The fee would return to the businesses and so is not a tax, she said.

Devitt said the club was introduced to the initiative when they were contacted by Rahul Ramakrishnan, a Belmont High graduate (Class of 2016) attending MIT, who has been working on his own fee-based proposal.

“If Belmont could reduce paper bag consumption through a home rule petition, we would drastically decrease our carbon emissions, while setting a precedent to other towns,” said Devitt, noting Belmont would be the first town-structured community to pass such a fee.

In 2014, Cambridge successfully implemented the exact policy the club will proposed, encouraging customers to “BYOB” – bring your own bag. After the installment of the policy, paper bag consumption was reduced by 80 percent.

Using those results, the club took a look at businesses in Belmont, big and small – Star Market, CVS, Rancatores, convenient stores – and calculated the impact of a fee on the community’s carbon emissions.

The manufacturing of a single paper bag emits about 20g of CO2. Assuming 10,000 households in Belmont use a total of 16 paper bags per week, that is a total of 166 tons of CO2 per year. A typical car produces about 3 tons a year, so that works out that our paper bag usage releases about the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, per year, as 50 cars. 

The measure would come before Town Meeting as a new bylaw, requiring a two-thirds approval by the 290 member legislative body.

“Town Meeting’s approval is essential to pass the bill through the ‘home rule,’ a town-specific method of passing a bill that doesn’t require approval from the Attorney General’s office,” said Devitt.

Currently, the club is seeking groups and individuals to support the new bylaw as it heads towards a May vote.

Devitt and Madeline Kitch launched the Climate Action Club over the summer and have more than a dozen active members. Its goal is dedicated to taking action within the town.

“[W]e found that in Belmont, the majority of high school students are concerned about the climate crisis. However, many students are unsure of how to combat these daunting issues,” said Devitt.

And club members have been active, attending Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee meetings to push for Zero Net Energy solar energy at the new institution, collecting more than 250 signatures to support the cause.

“We have [also] attended several climate strikes and Lobby Days as a club, taking the Harvard buses and Red Line into Boston during the school day,” said Devitt.

“Now, we are focusing our time into passing the bill,” she said.

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