Plastic Bag Ban Set For May Town Meeting Vote

Photo: “Plastic or paper?” could become “Paper?”

The ubiquitous single-use plastic bag could soon be a memory in the Town of Homes as the Belmont Board of Selectmen approved on Monday, Feb. 26 sponsoring an article before the annual Town Meeting in May banning town retailers from providing the quintessential receptacle to their customers.

If passed by Town Meeting, the bylaw will take effect six months after the vote or on Nov. 1, 2018, whichever is later and would initially apply to stores with more than 30,000 square feet of retail space. Carthy said it would likely first impact the Star Market on Trapelo Road. The remainder of stores will have until nine months after Town Meeting approval or Feb. 1, 2019, to make the change.

The selectmen’s unanimous vote supports the initiative from the 15 resident group that formed in November seeking to end Belmont merchants use of the thin bags to check the harm it does to the environment – plastic bags harm animals and sea life that eat or are entangled by them – while also clogging storm drains and burdening solid waste disposal and recycling facilities. 

“The thin-film plastic bags are incredibly cheap so there is little incentive for merchants to make a change,” said the group’s spokesperson Mark Carthy of Stone Road and a Precinct 6 Town meeting member.

Carthy said the group submitted a Citizen’s Petition that was certified by the Town Clerk on Monday as a backup plan if the Selectmen had not accepted their proposal. 

“We are very pleased with [the selectmen’s] vote as it will make it an easier process under their guidance,” said Carthy.

Under the new bylaw, retailers will have two choices for customers; recyclables paper and reusable check-out bags made of natural fibers (cotton or linen), with stitched panels and can carry 25 pounds for more than 300 feet. The Belmont ban would include all plastic bags including the heavier, sturdy plastic examples which towns have allowed – an example is bags used by Russo’s in Watertown. Exceptions will include plastic bags without handles such as those covering or containing dry cleaning, newspapers, produce and meats, and bulk or wet foods.

For retailers who violate the ban, a written warning will come with the first offense. A second violation will be accompanied by a $50 fine and any further offense a $200 fine will be imposed and the fines will be cumulative and each day a violation occurs will constitute a separate offense.

Belmont is following the lead of more than 60 municipalities around the state which have installed bans in the past five years. Neighboring Cambridge has banned most plastic bags and charge a fee for paper bags since 2015 while Arlington’s ban on single-use plastic bags goes into effect on March 1 for retailers over 10,000 square feet and on July 1 for all other retailers. 

Belmont will not be able to impose a fee for bags as Cambridge does since state law prohibits towns from imposing a surtax on bags but does allow cities, said Carthy.

While popular in Massachusetts, bag bans have been less than accepted elsewhere. State legislatures in South Carolina, Utah, Arizona and Florida have voted to prohibit municipalities from banning carry-out bags. 

While the selectmen and Board of Health, which the bag ban group visited Monday evening, support the proposal, each noted a concern the bylaw’s enforcement powers which are ceded to the Belmont Health Department, will place an additional burden on its small staff. Health Board member Dr. David Alper told the group executing the laws compliance rules “will not be high on our things to enforce.”

Alper advised the group to reach out to the Department of Public Works and Mary Beth Calnan, the town’s part-time Recycling Coordinator, which would “give you a better bang for the buck” as “they can educate the stores and be punitive” when needed.